This 10 part expository study of Ezra was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2002. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson (Lesson 3 excepted, which does not have audio.).
It is easy—far too easy—to settle into a comfortable, routine Christianity. I have been a committed Christian for about 36 years and a pastor for 25 years, and it’s easy for me to drift into a safe, comfortable routine, where my heart is not panting after God like the thirsty deer after the water brook (Ps. 42:1). At such times, I am not, as David put it, thirsting and yearning for God “in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). My heart grows dull and my vision for God is gradually blurred. What I need at such times—what we all need repeatedly—is for God’s Spirit to blow upon us in spiritual renewal.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about God’s renewing His errant people. They are put together as one book in the Hebrew Bible, although the fact that the lists in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 are virtually the same argues that originally they were separate. Ezra is about the return of the exiles from Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of God’s people spiritually. Nehemiah is about the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, as well as the spiritual renewal of God’s people.
The Book of Ezra falls into two sections: Chapters 1-6 deal with the initial return of a remnant from Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 B.C., with the aim of restoring the Temple. The project began in 536 B.C., but opposition quickly arose, leading to the abandonment of the project for 16 years. Through the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (5:1-2), the construction was renewed, coming to completion in 515 B.C.
Between chapters 6 and 7, there is a 58-year gap during which the events of the Book of Esther took place. At the beginning of chapter 7, in 457 B.C. (81 years after the first return), Ezra the priest led another smaller group to return to the land and bring renewal to the people, who were already drifting into assimilation with the surrounding people.
So the theme of the book is God’s restoring His people to the land according to His gracious promise and restoring His people spiritually to proper worship and godly living. A brief outline is:
1. Restoration of the Temple (1-6); return under Zerubbabel (538-515 B.C.)
A. The decree of Cyrus (1)
B. The census of the people (2)
C. The commencement of the project (3)
D. The opposition to the project (4)
E. The construction renewed amid opposition (5:1-6:12)
F. The construction completed (6:13-22)
(58 year gap—the Book of Esther)
2. Reformation of the People (7-10); return under Ezra (457 B.C.)
A. The leadership of the reformation commissioned (7)
B. The leader and his people return (8)
C. The reformation commenced (9-10)
(1) The condition of the people revealed (9:1-4)
(2) The confession of Ezra in prayer (9:5-15)
(3) The covenant (10:1-8) and cleansing (10:9-44) of the people
With that as a brief introduction, I want to focus the rest of our time on chapter 1. The lesson there is:
Spiritual renewal requires God’s great power working according to His gracious promises for His glorious purpose.
As you know from the history of Israel, for four centuries the Lord warned His disobedient people, calling them back to Himself through His prophets. Finally, they had persisted in their idolatry for too long, and God fulfilled His warning by scattering them among the nations (Deut. 28:64). As God prophesied through Moses almost 1,000 years before, “And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life” (Deut. 28:65-66).
Why would God give His people a trembling heart, failing eyes, despair of soul, and no assurance of life? Hebrews 12 gives us the answer: “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives…. He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:6, 10). By nature, we’re all so wed to this world and the things of this world that the Lord has to bring us to the place where we find no rest in Babylon. We have to recognize that all that this world offers will leave us with a trembling heart, failing eyes, and despair of soul. The dry times spiritually should make us thirst after the living God, who alone can satisfy.
There were many Jews in Babylon who were comfortable there. Many of them had been born in captivity and Babylon was all that they knew. They heard stories from the old-timers about the glories of Zion and the beauty of the Temple. But they just shrugged, “Why go back there when we have a good life here?”
Besides, it was both inconvenient and risky to go back to Jerusalem. It meant saying good-bye to the comfortable and familiar surroundings and friends and venturing across 1,000 miles of hostile desert terrain to a land that had been decimated by war. There weren’t cities with beautiful empty homes awaiting them. There were piles of rubble and some hostile people who had moved into the empty land after the Babylonians had dragged off the surviving Jews 50 years earlier. So why go back?
But there were other Jews in Babylon who were not comfortable there. They remembered Zion and said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:4). They exalted Jerusalem, where God’s people worshiped Him in His temple, as their chief joy (Ps. 137:6). So when they heard the unbelievable news that Cyrus, the pagan king, had issued a call to the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Lord’s temple, they were like those who dream. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with joyful shouting. “Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Ps. 126:2-3).
Cold water tastes so good when you are dry to the bone. God’s river of living water tastes so good when you have gone through a dry time and you’re aware that all of Babylon’s pleasures only leave you with despair of soul. But the key is this: When you are in a dry time, don’t get satisfied with Babylon. Remember Jerusalem, and cry out for God’s Spirit to take you back there. But, how does it happen?
Ezra 1:1-3a is identical to 2 Chronicles 36:22-23. They are astounding verses. In Jeremiah 29:10-14, the Lord had sent word through His prophet to those who were already in exile in Babylon:
For thus says the LORD, “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,” declares the LORD, “and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.”
The Lord had wounded; now He would heal. The Lord had killed; now He was giving life (Deut. 32:39). The seventy-year captivity began in 605 B.C. Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C. The decree of Cyrus was in 538, the first year of his reign over Babylon, 67 years after the first deportation, but scarcely 50 years since the destruction of the city. By the time the people returned and built the altar in 536, the 70 years were almost expired. Derek Kidner observes, “It was not the last time that God’s mercy would shorten the days of trial (Matt. 24:22)” (Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 32).
But the remarkable and significant thing is that it was God who stirred up Cyrus to make this dramatic proclamation. About 150 years before, Isaiah had predicted this event (Isa. 44:28-45:7). The fact that he named Cyrus has led critics to say that Isaiah could not have written this, and thus to attribute it to a later scribe. But only a bias against God’s supernatural knowledge would lead us to reject Isaiah’s prophecy.
Why would Cyrus, a pagan king, issue a decree for the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their Temple? In the 19th century, the Cyrus Cylinder was discovered. It reveals that he had a policy of restoring people to their native lands and religions, asking them to pray to their gods on his behalf. A portion of it reads, “May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me” (cited by Kidner, p. 18).
So on a human level, you have a polytheistic king following his program of religious tolerance, superstitiously asking the subject people to pray to their gods for his well being. He even provided for funds to be raised to support the restoration, and he donated the temple objects that Nebuchadnezzar had taken years before.
But as our text shows, behind it all was the sovereign God turning this king’s heart as channels of water to fulfill His purpose (Prov. 21:1). Cyrus was ignorant of God’s ways. From his perspective, he was building his empire by employing wise policies that would insure his long reign. But behind Cyrus’ incredible decree, God was working to fulfill His Word through His prophet (1:1). Just as in the exodus, the Lord put it in the hearts of the Egyptians to give gold and silver to the Jews, so here He worked through Cyrus so that the Babylonian residents gave those returning silver and gold, goods and cattle (Ezra 1:4, 6). There is simply no human explanation for this. God was the only reason for it.
There are human schemes and methods for bringing spiritual renewal. But for it to be genuine, God must work according to His mighty power. Anything less will be a cheap, superficial substitute. But, then, do we just sit around and wait for God to work, or is there something that we can do?
Everything in the spiritual realm depends on God’s grace as promised in His Word. If God had not promised restoration, no amount of human effort could have brought it about. But since God had promised, and since He works through means that He ordains, there are some things that we can do:
The prophet Daniel’s meditation on Jeremiah’s prophecy and his prayers for God to forgive and restore His captive people were behind these dramatic changes in history (Daniel 9). Daniel didn’t read Jeremiah’s prophecy, realize that the 70 years were almost up, and say, “Cool! Let’s sit back and see what happens!” Rather, he humbled himself with fasting and he confessed his people’s and his own sins.
If we want spiritual renewal, whether personally or for God’s church, we must humble ourselves before God and entreat Him for it. If we’re content in Babylon, with no longing for worship in God’s temple in Jerusalem, we won’t cry out to Him for anything different. But if we realize that God promises more than we’re experiencing, we will give ourselves to prayer until He grants it.
The renewal under Ezra was a renewal of God’s Word. The fulfillment of Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s prophecies showed God’s people that His Word is true and can be trusted, no matter how impossible the situation. Ezra 7:6 tells us that Ezra was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses. Ezra 7:10 says, “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” In Nehemiah 8:8, we find that under Ezra’s leadership, in front of all the people, well-trained scribes “read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.” Many scholars think that Ezra is the author of Psalm 119, which extols God’s Word for 176 verses. Clearly, Ezra was a man who believed in the transforming power of God’s Word.
Every true spiritual renewal is founded on and sustained by God’s Word. The Reformation was a renewal of the Word. Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers began systematically teaching and applying God’s Word in ways that had been grossly neglected by the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritan movement also was centered on God’s Word, as pastors would explain and apply the great doctrines of Scripture, usually in hour-long sermons (J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness [Crossway Books], p. 280). In the preface of his wonderful book, Calvin’s Preaching (Westminster/John Knox Press, p. x), British scholar T. H. L. Parker indicts the modern church that has abandoned Calvin’s method of careful exposition of Scripture. He says, “What wonder that a Church which picks and chooses what it wants out of the Bible should become confused in its theology, flabby in its morals, and with little to state but the worldly obvious—the day after worldly liberals have stated it more convincingly?” If we want renewal, we must put a renewed emphasis on God’s Word of truth.
God had promised to restore His people after the 70 years, but it was a humanly impossible task. After 70 years in Babylon, with the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins, how could things ever be restored? The Jews didn’t have the resources to do it, even if a royal edict permitted them to return to the land.
But what man could not do, God did. He had Cyrus put it into the royal edict that the people should contribute to those returning. And, Cyrus himself brought out the vessels from the Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had put into his own temple. The 2,499 in 1:9-10 probably refers to the bigger and more valuable items, whereas the 5,400 in 1:11 is the total of all the items (John A. Martin, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:655). Also, while there is debate as to the exact identity of Sheshbazzar (1:8, 10), probably it is the Babylonian name of Zerubbabel (cf. 5:16 with Zech. 4:9), who was the godly grandson of the godless Jewish King Jeconiah (1 Chron. 3:17-19; The Ryrie Study Bible [Moody Press], note on Ezra 1:8).
Derek Kidner (p. 35) points out that every piece of these temple items was “a witness to God’s sovereign care and the continuance of the covenant.” Here’s the application for us: Christ has promised to build His church and that some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation will one day be gathered before His throne (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 5:9). But the task seems humanly impossible! Where do we get the resources to see these promises become a reality? The answer is here: When God promises, He also supplies the demands to meet those promises as His people wait on Him in prayer. As Hudson Taylor used to say, “God’s work done in God’s way will not lack God’s means of support.”
Thus, spiritual renewal requires God’s great power according to His gracious promises. Finally,
The Temple at Jerusalem had been the place where God’s glory was displayed. That place had been destroyed because of the sins of His people. He now is referred to as “the God of heaven.” That title is used 9 times in Ezra, more than in any other book of the Bible. It is used 10 times in other post-exilic books (2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Daniel), and elsewhere in the Old Testament only 4 times (Martin, p. 655). It shows God to be the sovereign over all. But it also may hint at the fact that His glory was not now being revealed on earth, since the Temple had been destroyed.
Thus God’s purpose was to manifest His glory through a rebuilt Temple where His restored people could worship Him in spirit and truth. His glory was supremely revealed in the rebuilt Temple when Jesus the Messiah appeared there as “God’s salvation, which [He] prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
God’s purpose today is the same: He wants to reveal His glory through a renewed people, who by their holy lives and witness reveal His Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to all peoples. In other words, spiritual renewal is not for us, so that we can lead happy, fulfilled lives to the neglect of the world. Spiritual renewal is for God’s purpose, that His glory would be revealed to the nations.
How can this happen? I can only be brief and limited here.
First, ask God to give you a vision of what a renewed, holy, worshiping, evangelizing community of His people would look like. Then, devote yourself to being a part of making that happen here. It has to begin on an individual level before it can move to a corporate level. In other words, ask God to renew you! If your heart is stirred for renewal, that stirring came from God (1:5). And yet each of us is responsible to seek the Lord and “search for [Him] with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
Men, especially, need to take the leadership in this process. It was “the heads of fathers’ households of Judah and Benjamin” that arose to the challenge to return to Jerusalem (1:5). While God greatly uses godly women, He has ordained for men to take the spiritual lead in the home and in the church. God won’t bring renewal while men are spiritually passive.
Finally, be willing to be inconvenienced to see spiritual renewal happen, both personally and corporately. To return to Jerusalem was a major hassle and inconvenience for everyone who responded to the call. But if God is going to renew your life, you’ve got to get out of your rut and make some changes. You’ve got to be willing to give up the comfortable life in Babylon and embrace the hardships of seeing His Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. It may be as simple as turning off the tube and picking up your Bible on a consistent basis to spend time with the Lord. It may mean scheduling regular extended times for seeking the Lord. It may mean setting some spiritual goals and asking God for the grace and wisdom to achieve them. But it certainly means doing some things differently than the current status quo!
Do you sense the need personally for spiritual renewal? If your honest answer is, “No, I’m fine, thanks,” you’ll stay in Babylon. It’s a comfortable place to live. You’ll enjoy a good life there. But you’ll miss what God wants to do with you personally and with you as a part of His church corporately.
If you sense the need for renewal, get alone with God as soon as you can and begin asking Him by His great power according to His gracious promises to work for His glorious purpose in you and in this church. It won’t be an easy, comfortable road to travel. There are many hardships and obstacles along the way. But, as Derek Kidner points out (p. 35), the closing words of chapter one, “from Babylon to Jerusalem,” mark one of the turning points of history. God calls you to join that group returning to the place of His blessing.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Ezra 2 is the sort of passage that expository preachers are tempted to skip. You might find here some unique ideas for naming your baby (“Gazzam” [2:48] has a certain ring to it!), but other than that, you wonder why God took up space in the Bible for this long list of unpronounceable names. It’s doubly hard to understand, because God put essentially the same list again in Nehemiah 7! These just aren’t the sort of chapters that you spend rapturous hours on during your quiet time!
But since all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), we should not automatically skip these portions of God’s Word, but rather try to figure out why they’re in the Bible.
Why did Ezra include this list here? Perhaps there are several reasons (listed in Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary [Broadman & Holman], p. 74). The list may legitimize land rights after the return from the exile. It may distinguish true Israelites from the Samaritans and show, in the face of Tattenai’s challenge (5:3-4) those who were authorized by Cyrus to return and rebuild the Temple. Also, “the author and his readers were concerned about the continuity of this community with the preexilic Jewish nation. It was important to show that this community, though small and weak, continued God’s plan for Israel” (p. 73).
Derek Kidner observes (Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 36):
This chapter, however uninviting it may seem, is a monument to God’s care and to Israel’s vitality. The thousands of homecomers are not lumped together, but (in characteristic biblical fashion) related to those local and family circles which humanize a society and orientate an individual. … And for the people’s part, their tenacious memory of places and relationships, still strong after two generations in exile, showed a fine refusal to be robbed of either their past or their future.
He goes on to make the point that “the fundamental motive for this careful grouping was not social but religious.” In this new opportunity for Israel to live up to its calling, every priest must have his credentials, and every member too. The close of the chapter shows the restored nation, orderly, structured and ready for its main purpose, namely, worship.
Bringing together the various strands of these themes, the lesson for us from this list is that…
God is faithful to His chosen people, to discipline them for their sins and to restore them, so that they might live faithfully to His covenant.
Before we look at the spiritual and practical lessons, let’s look briefly at the structure and some of the details of the list. In verse 2, there are 11 names in Ezra, whereas Nehemiah 7:7 has 12. Most scholars think that a scribal error left out a name in Ezra and that the number 12 is significant as representing the 12 tribes. The Nehemiah and Mordecai of these verses are not the more well-known men from the books of Nehemiah and Esther.
From 2:2-20 is a list of various families and their numbers. The many numerical differences between Ezra and Nehemiah are probably due to scribal errors. Hebrew numbers are difficult to transcribe. From 2:21-35 is a list of various towns and their population. This is followed by a list of the priests (2:36-39), Levites (those in the tribe of Levi who were not sons of Aaron), temple singers and gatekeepers (2:40-42). The temple servants (2:43-54) and the sons of Solomon’s servants (2:55-58) numbered 392 all together, averaging only about 9 members per clan. Then comes a list of those who could not produce evidence of their tribal origin (2:59-60), including certain priests (2:61-63). The governor excluded them from serving as priests until a high priest could be authorized to use the Urim and Thummim, which were a means of determining God’s will.
Then the totals are given (2:64-67), plus the number of servants, singing men and women, and livestock. There is a problem in that when you add up the numbers in 2:3-60, you get 29,818, but verse 64 lists the total as 42,360, a difference of 12,540. Some say that the difference represents women and children, but this would be a small number for 30,000 men. Others suggest that the 30,000 were from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, whereas the 12,000 are from the northern tribes. But the bottom line is, the text does not account for the difference, and so we do not know. When you add the servants and the singers to the 42,360, you get 49,897 who returned in this first movement back to the land.
The chapter ends by noting that one of the first things the various heads of households did upon arriving in Jerusalem was to give a sizeable amount toward the rebuilding of the Temple. This showed their commitment to the Lord and to proper worship. The final verse (70) reports that the people were resettled in their cities, with special mention of those responsible for worship.
Now let’s focus on the spiritual lessons here:
As Kidner says (p. 36), “This chapter is a monument to God’s care….” He had led the sinful nation into captivity and now He leads them back to the land, just as He had promised through His prophets (Jer. 29:10-14). During the siege of Jerusalem, God had told Jeremiah to redeem his family ancestral property in Anathoth as a witness that “houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:6-15). Ezra’s list records 128 men from the village of Anathoth (2:23) returning to the land. So this list underscores what we saw last week, that the return to the land came about because the Lord stirred up the heart of the pagan king Cyrus to fulfill His word through Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1-4). God’s faithfulness is the main banner to write above this list. There are three things to spell out in more detail:
God chose Israel (those descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to be His people. As Moses told the Israelites, “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6). He goes on to tell them that it was not because of anything special in them, but rather because of God’s sovereign oath to their forefathers. Then he says, “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them” (Deut. 7:9-10a).
Those verses are foundational to understanding why we have this list of names in Ezra 2. Ancestry was essential to being a Jew and being a Jew was essential to being a part of the covenant nation. The temple servants (2:43-54) and the sons of Solomon’s servants (2:55-58) were probably not native Jews, but foreigners who were brought in to do the more menial tasks. By accepting the covenant of circumcision, they could be included in Israel (Exod. 12:48). But the point still stands, that ancestry was important. The 652 who could not prove their ancestry are singled out (2:59-60) and were apparently given the same standing as circumcised foreigners. But they lacked legitimate grounds for claiming their tribal lands, as parceled out by Joshua.
By the time we get to the New Testament, the Jews had taken their ancestry too far. It led them into pride with regard to the Gentiles and to the false notion that a birth pedigree was sufficient for right standing with God. But John the Baptist confronted them: “Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8).
As Jesus told Nicodemus, the important birth is not being born a Jew physically, but being born again spiritually through repentance and faith in Christ (John 3:1-21). Paul makes the same point, that it is those who are of the faith of Abraham who are his true children (Rom. 4:13-16; 9:6-8; Gal. 3:29). Thus the evidence that we are God’s chosen people is not our physical birth, but rather the evidence of the new birth which is through faith in Christ. For this reason, Peter (2 Pet. 1:5-10) gives us a list of moral qualities that we need to add to our faith and concludes, “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you.” Thus this registry of Jewish ancestry was a type of the registry that really matters, the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 20:12). Make sure that your name is written there!
The Babylonian captivity was God’s faithful discipline of His erring people. He had warned them that He would scatter them among the nations if they persisted in their disobedience (Deut. 28:64). God used the wicked Babylonians to discipline His people (Hab. 1) and to show them the emptiness of idolatry. Israel had not faithfully kept the sabbath, and so God expelled them from the land for 70 years of sabbaths (2 Chron. 36:21) to teach them the importance of obedience to His Word.
Hebrews 12:8 tells us, “If you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” of God. In other words, if you claim to be a Christian and you live in deliberate disobedience to God without any negative consequences, you’re in bigger trouble than you realize! You may not be a true Christian at all. One mark of a true child of God is that when he sins, God faithfully disciplines him.
But—and this point is crucial—God does not discipline us to make us pay for our sins. Christ paid for our sins on the cross. Rather, He disciplines us that we might share His holiness (Heb. 12:10). In other words, restoration is the goal of God’s discipline of His true children.
When the 70 years were up, God restored His people to the promised land. This chapter is a specific, detailed record of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people. He knows how long His people need to be under His rod of discipline and He is able to restore them when the time is right.
Note that God did not wipe out the consequences of the nation’s sins, even when He restored them. They did not come back to beautiful cities and homes or to cultivated fields waiting to be harvested. They came back to piles of rubble and to fields overgrown with weeds. It required a lot of time and work to rebuild the devastated cities and to get the farm lands back into shape.
When God forgives our sin and restores us spiritually, He does not usually remove the consequences of what we did to incur His discipline. If you destroyed your family through your sinful anger, you may not get your family back when God restores you to a right relationship with Him. If you ran up huge debts because of your impulsive spending, repentance doesn’t mean that God will make all your creditors evaporate. You may have to work many years to pay your debts.
Also, note that those returning to the land were the children and grandchildren of those who brought on the captivity by their sins. The ones returning could have bitterly complained, “It’s not fair that we should have to rebuild what was destroyed because of our sinful parents!” But that kind of attitude reflects a rebellious heart towards the Lord. Our attitude should always be submission to the Lord in all of His dealings with us and gratitude that He doesn’t give us what we really deserve. If He should count iniquities, who could stand (Ps. 130:3)?
Thus God’s faithfulness is the banner over this long list of those returning to the land. But the other factor is the people’s response to God’s faithfulness:
When God graciously gives us the opportunity to begin again as His covenant children after we’ve sinned, His grace should motivate us to obedience. This list implies three aspects of covenant faithfulness:
One reason this list is here is to demonstrate to the current generation of Jews their historical continuity with the pre-exilic Jewish community that God had chosen (Breneman, pp. 50). “It was important to show that this community, though small and weak, continued God’s plan for Israel” (ibid., p. 73). They were now to carry on God’s purposes and to hand off to their children and grandchildren a vision for those purposes and for their identity as His people. The very fact that a person could say, “I am the son of so-and-so, the son of so-and-so, etc.,” back for many generations, and that he was dwelling on the family inheritance, was a graphic picture of God’s covenant faithfulness.
I’m afraid that continuity is a rather strange concept for most of us today. Unlike many of our grandparents who grew up and lived the rest of their lives in the home they were born in, we change homes and geographic locations frequently. Family ties don’t usually have much effect on those decisions. The Jews could trace their ancestry back for centuries. One modern traveler to the Middle East said that on one occasion, while he was in an Arab encampment, an Arab got up and related the history of his forebears back to 40 generations, and that others there obviously could have done the same thing (in Edwin Yamauchi, Expositors Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 4:617). Most of us could not name our eight (or more, due to divorce) great-grandparents. I have first cousins that I would not recognize if they walked in the room, in that I haven’t seen them since childhood. It’s a rare thing in America to have two or three generations where families have not been fragmented by divorce, often several times over.
The only person that I’ve heard say much about the importance of continuity is Edith Schaeffer (see Common Sense Christian Living [Thomas Nelson], chapters 3 & 4). She makes the point that there is great value in the effort required to preserve continuity in life, both through committed relationships and through handing down items that have meaning and memories attached to them. This could include a grandmother’s quilts and a grandfather’s well-worn Bible. Of course the continuity that she is emphasizing is based on God’s Word. We should hand off His truth and work to preserve it in our families from generation to generation.
These Jews did not return to the land as so many individuals, to erect their fences and gated communities where they could come and go for years without even knowing their neighbors. They had a sense of community built on their common ancestry and faith. While they all lived in their respective cities and homes, Jerusalem was the center (3:1) where they went up at least three times each year to worship God together. They had more of a cooperative society, rather than the competitive society that we live in.
As Americans, we are individualistic and competitive. You can see it in our driving habits. We speed up when someone wants to pass us. In Poland, they move over to the side and pass three abreast on two-lane roads! They cooperate; we compete! When it comes to our spiritual lives, we tend to read the Bible in individualistic terms, not in corporate terms. For example, when we read in Ephesians and Colossians about “the new man,” we think of each person’s new identity in Christ. In fact, the NASB translates it, “the new self.” But in the context, Paul is talking about the church as the one new man (see Col. 3:9-14). And while there is a legitimate sense in which our individual bodies are temples of God 1 Cor. 6:19), there is another sense in which the entire church is God’s temple, and we are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22). To live faithfully to God’s covenant, we need to recover the biblical sense of community with other believers.
To give up your comfortable and familiar surroundings, pack up and move across 1,000 miles of hostile desert to a land that had been devastated by war took commitment! It wasn’t convenient, but those who made the move could not sing the Lord’s songs in Babylon (Psalm 137). They longed for Jerusalem and the Temple, where God’s glory had been known. And so they were willing to do whatever was required to see God enthroned among His people in His holy place. Their commitment can be seen in three strands:
This whole chapter centers on the return of the priest, Levites, singers, and doorkeepers of the Temple. It shows how Israel was organized for the purpose of worship. While there is a proper place for spontaneity in worship, there is also the need for proper order and planning. Our aim in worship is not to evoke a feeling, but to meet with the living God and to show forth His glory.
Also, the fact that the priests who could not confirm their ancestry were considered unclean and prevented from serving shows that holiness is an essential factor in proper worship. To be living as the world lives all week and then pop into church for a few minutes of worship is an abomination to God. All week long our lives should bring glory to God through holy thoughts, words, and deeds. Then our public worship on Sunday is an overflow of our gratitude and obedience to Him.
The list shows us the variety of service, with the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, and temple servants, each having their duty to perform for the smooth functioning of the whole. Some were more visible and up front. Others were more behind the scenes, but no less important. Even so, in the church, every member has been given a spiritual gift to exercise in serving the Lord for His glory (1 Pet. 4:10-11).
The first thing these people did upon returning, as far as the text records, was to go to the place where the house of the Lord had been and offer their gifts willingly to see it restored (2:68-69). The record of the animals (2:66-67) tells us that some of the returning people were fairly comfortable, in that the horse (736 of them) was like the Cadillac of that day. Many more (6,720) had donkeys, but among the 50,000, there were many who didn’t own any animals. They gave “according to their ability,” which implies that the wealthier people gave more, but the poor also gave as they could. Even so, Paul instructs us to put aside and give as the Lord has prospered us (1 Cor. 16:1-2). He commends the Macedonians who gave not only according to their ability, but even beyond their ability, of their own accord, begging Paul for the privilege of giving (2 Cor. 8:3-4).
Can God use a prosaic list of unknown names to spur us on to growth in godliness? Since it is in His Word which He promised will not return void unto Him (Isa. 55:11), I trust so.
First, are you one of His chosen ones? Make sure of it! I had someone ask me recently, “How can a person know that he is one of God’s elect?” My answer was, “That’s very simple. Answer this question: Have you truly put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and is there any evidence of that fact in your life?”
Second, are you experiencing and submitting to God’s faithful discipline in your life? This could be just the minor hassles that we all experience every day, or it could be a major trial. All these things are to train you to share His holiness as you submit joyfully to Him.
Third, are you seeking to live faithfully to His covenant? Covenant faithfulness will show itself in continuity, community, and commitment to worship, service, and giving. This chapter is a witness to God’s enduring faithfulness to His people. Our response to His faithfulness should be to live faithfully to His covenant.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Harold Ross started The New Yorker magazine years ago in small offices, with little equipment. One day in a restaurant downstairs he met Dorothy Parker, one of the magazine’s first writers. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Why aren’t you upstairs working?”
“Somebody was using the pencil,” she explained, “so I came down for some coffee.” (“Bits & Pieces,” [6/84], pp. 23, 24.) From such humble beginnings, The New Yorker has become a famous and widely circulated magazine. Almost everything great had a small beginning. You’ve got to start somewhere!
Our chapter is about a new beginning with God. To some of the old timers, it didn’t look like much. They were comparing it with the former glory of Solomon’s Temple that they had known, and this one didn’t pass muster. So they wept while the younger men rejoiced. But God used this new beginning to reestablish His people in their worship to Him amidst the rubble of what once had been Jerusalem. Concerning the temple that was begun here, the Lord said, “The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former” (Hag. 2:9). It was to this temple that the Lord Jesus Himself would come and bring the greater glory.
There are times in all of our lives when we need a new beginning with God. Maybe you have failed the Lord terribly through deliberate rebellion and sin. Perhaps you have drifted carelessly into the world and its ways, neglecting the things of God. Now you’re far from Him. A disappointment or trial may have caused you to drift from the close fellowship with God and His people that you once enjoyed. You need a new beginning.
But you wonder if it’s even possible. And if it is, where do you start? The thought of a new beginning is scary, because you don’t want to risk another failure. But you’re not content where you’re at. You’ve come to realize that the idols of Babylon can’t satisfy your soul. You’re so dissatisfied in Babylon that you’re willing to uproot yourself and make the difficult and perilous journey back to the land of promise. But you get there and discover that the land is just a pile of rubble. How do you begin again with God? Our chapter shows us four things:
The nation of Israel was about as spiritually low as you can go. The northern kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., after a history of idolatry. The southern kingdom of Judah fell in 587 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and dragged the Jews into captivity in Babylon. Fifty years passed when out of the gloom, according to God’s promise through Jeremiah (29:10-14), He stirred up the pagan king Cyrus to issue a decree permitting the Jews to return to the land.
Almost 50,000 Jews responded. They gave up their lives in Babylon, risked the dangerous and difficult journey across the desert, and now were back in the land. But it wasn’t the land the old timers had once known. It was a land devastated by war, suffering from 50 years of neglect. When in the seventh month (September/October) these Jews went up to Jerusalem (3:1), they came to a city where the walls were torn down and the buildings, including the temple, had been destroyed 50 years before. The hostile people that had moved in viewed these returning Jews with suspicion. There was nothing happening spiritually. And yet God had promised a new beginning in this desolate ghost town (see Jer. 33:10-11).
Whether it is to His people corporately or to individual believers who have fallen into sin, our God is a God of new beginnings! To the fallen but repentant King David, the prophet said, “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). To the disobedient and chastised prophet Jonah, vomited out of the great fish, “The word of the Lord came … the second time” (Jonah 3:1). To the weeping and broken Peter, the risen Savior appeared privately to restore him. Have you failed the Lord miserably? God graciously offers you a new beginning! But, where do you start?
The first thing that the leaders, Jeshua and Zerubbabel, did when they saw the pile of rubble where the Temple once stood was to rebuild the altar (Ezra 3:2). From verse 6 we learn that they had done this prior to the first day of the seventh month, when the returned remnant gathered in Jerusalem. So when the people got to the devastated city, rising out of the rubble they saw a restored altar. Even though the foundation of the temple had not been laid, the sight of that altar filled them with hope!
Why did they begin with the altar? Because our fundamental need if we want to draw near to God is forgiveness of our sins. God designated the altar so that the one bringing the offering would be “accepted before the Lord” (Lev. 1:3). Concerning the altar, God had said, “I will meet there with the sons of Israel …” (Exod. 29:43). The sacrificial animals pointed ahead to God’s perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins, the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you have never begun with God, you must begin at the cross, where Jesus the Lamb of God shed His blood to atone for sinners. The Bible says that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (Heb. 9:22). Your good works can never earn God’s forgiveness. Either you put your trust in the perfect substitute God provided, the Lord Jesus Christ; or you must pay for your own sins with eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Faith in Christ’s blood is the only way to begin with God.
If you are a believer, but have strayed from the Lord, the cross is still the place for a new beginning. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Live daily at the foot of the cross.
How did they know to set up the altar? We read (3:2), “as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God.” Why did they observe the Feast of Booths? We read (3:4), “as it is written,” and “according to the ordinance.” They weren’t making this stuff up according to their own preferences. They didn’t take a poll to find out what the people wanted to do. Maybe the old way of worship wasn’t in tune with the modern times! Maybe the younger generation wanted a more contemporary way of meeting with God! Why not throw out the old and bring in some innovation to liven things up? But they didn’t do that! They went back to the Word of God and they obeyed it.
There is nothing wrong with contemporary music and forms of worship, as long as they do not violate Scripture. Just because it’s old does not mean that it’s good or bad, and the same can be said of the new. Some of the old hymns contain great theology, and the younger generation should learn them and pass them on. Some of the old hymns are shallow and corny and should be forgotten! The same can be said of the newer music: Some songs are solid and edifying; some are theologically shallow and silly.
The standard we need to evaluate everything is, does it line up with Scripture and properly glorify God as He is revealed in His Word? And, does it promote holiness in God’s people, in line with His Word?
When it comes to how we should live as God’s people, we also must go to God’s Word and obey what He commands. God’s moral commandments do not adapt to the changing moral standards of our times. He hasn’t softened His views on premarital sex or homosexuality, in spite of what our modern society feels. God doesn’t say, “Well, if you feel really good about marrying a non-Christian, and you’ve prayed about it, then I guess it’s okay!” His Word plainly declares, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). And, “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
If you want a new beginning with God, it’s available. Begin at the cross and then walk in obedience to His Word.
Verse 6 implies that while their new beginning of rebuilding the altar was good, something major was still missing: They had not yet laid the foundation for the temple. These verses contain three references to the temple (3:6, 9, 10) and five where it is called the Lord’s house (3:8 [2x], 11, 12 [2x]). The temple or house of the Lord was the place where He dwelled among His people and manifested His glory. His people went there to offer sacrifices for forgiveness of sins and for thanksgiving for His goodness to them. It was a place of corporate celebration, where all Israel gathered three times a year for the feasts of Passover (March/ April), Pentecost (May/June), and Tabernacles (or Booths; September/October). The restored nation could not properly worship God until they rebuilt His house.
The remarkable thing is that we as God’s church are now His temple or house, where He dwells in us and walks among us (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22)! The building where we meet is not God’s house; it is only the place where God’s house gathers for worship. God’s house or temple can meet in private homes or in a park or a barn or a cathedral. But we need to remember that the place isn’t sacred; the people are sacred! When even two or three of God’s people gather in the name of Jesus, He is there in their midst (Matt. 18:20).
The application is that if you need a new beginning with God, don’t try to go it alone. There is a sense, of course, in which any new beginning must be intensely private. You must go to the Lord in private and confess your sins and personally appropriate the shed blood of Christ. You must personally get into God’s Word and begin to obey it in your daily life, starting on the thought level. If you have not started there, you can go to church meetings every day of the week, but you will simply be reinforcing hypocrisy in your life, putting on a good front to others while your private life is in shambles.
But once you’ve begun anew in private, you very much need to be built together with others who have a commitment to know God. Without that commitment to other believers, the world, the flesh, and the devil will overwhelm you. But, you may wonder, how do we build God’s house? Our text reveals at least five factors:
They rebuilt the altar because, “they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands” (3:3). These words imply “that the threatening situation had brought home to them their need of help, and therefore of that access to God which was promised at the altar” (Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 46). Some may have focused on building a strong and well-armed militia. But these men knew that help from man is in vain if the Lord is not in His rightful place. If they put God first by rebuilding His altar, then He would protect them from the enemies who weren’t happy about their return. God wants a people for His name. If we will seek first His kingdom and righteousness, He will take care of our basic needs.
Courage does not mean a lack of fear, but rather the gumption to stand firm in threatening circumstances because your trust is in the Lord. Courageous Christians will admit, “I could lose my friends or my job or perhaps even my life, and yes, that is a scary thought. But I will not compromise my commitment to Jesus Christ to preserve any of those things, which are all going to perish soon anyway. Then I will stand before God.” So we fear God more than we fear anything in this evil world. (Luke 12:4-5.) You may have to have that kind of courage alone. But it’s easier to take that sort of stand with other believers who support you with encouragement and prayer.
These people had just returned to the land, which meant giving up their source of income in Babylon and making a four-month trek to a land that had no crops waiting to be harvested and no jobs or economy. Surely most of them were not wealthy after 50-70 years in captivity. But when they saw that the house of God was a pile of rubble, they gave money, food, drink, and oil for the labor and materials to rebuild the temple (3:7).
Building God’s house requires money. Your willingness to give and the proportion that you give are perhaps the best indicators that Jesus is Lord of your heart. If statistics mean anything, the modern evangelical church is not living under the lordship of Christ. This week I received a letter with these statistics:
(a) In churches whose sole stewardship method is receiving offerings, and people base their decisions on a dollar amount, without writing it on paper and turning it in annually, attendees give an average of 1.5 percent of their incomes.
(b) In churches that ask people to annually write on a card and turn in a dollar amount based on a budget goal, parishioners give an average of 2.9 percent of their incomes.
(c) In churches that ask people to annually write on a card and turn in a dollar amount based on a percentage of their income, attendees give an average of 4.6 percent of their incomes.
Among all denominations, 63 percent of pastors give at least 10 percent of their before-taxes income. Yet, one out of three does not tell their congregations, thereby missing a great influence opportunity. (From Steve LeBar, citing Leith Anderson, Leadership That Works.)
Our church fits the first description as far as stewardship method. I hope that we do not match the 1.5 percent! I fit the one out of three pastors who is reluctant to tell the church how much we give. But if it encourages anyone to be more faithful, I will share that the Lord has enabled us for many years now to give more than 20 percent of our pre-tax income to His work. If you want a new beginning with the Lord, start with financial faithfulness. Jesus said that if we are faithful with the “little thing” of money, God will entrust true riches to us (Luke 16:10-13).
Israel came “together as one man to Jerusalem” (3:1). The various leaders “stood united” (3:9) with one another to oversee the workers who were rebuilding the temple. Unity was essential because of the enemy outside that would shortly threaten and shut down the work. The leaders wisely delegated the work so that it did not fall on just a few. Any significant work for God is the work of many members working together in harmony, under godly leaders.
When the enemy wants to stop such a work, often he disrupts the unity. When that happens (as has happened here in the past few months), there are several dangers. Leaders can be tempted to compromise important truth for the sake of preserving unity, but this always leads to greater disaster down the line because it undermines God’s Word. Leaders also can react in the flesh by lashing out in anger or personal counter-attacks, thus tarnishing their qualifications as spiritual leaders.
Workers can use the occasion to vent their frustration against the leaders because of personal issues that they feel have not been properly addressed. Workers also can form factions based on friendships and other emotional issues, rather than submitting to the God-ordained leaders. Gossip and false rumors can quickly spread through the body because people listen to those who are disgruntled and do not go directly to the source to ascertain the truth. All in all, Satan has a heyday and many of the Lord’s people end up wounded. So we must be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, while striving to attain to the unity of the faith that comes with spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:3, 13).
Much could be said here, but I must limit myself. Note first that both personal and corporate worship focus on God and affirm by faith His goodness and covenant love (3:11). Worship requires skillful musicians (3:10), but if the focus is on them, you’re into entertainment, not worship. Worship praises the Lord, saying, “For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.”
Remember, these people had just come through 70 years of captivity in Babylon. Many had lost loved ones, as well as possessions and homes, when Jerusalem fell. If they had been focused on themselves, they would have complained and impugned the goodness of God. But by faith they knew that the Lord had afflicted them out of His goodness (Ps. 119:67, 71). So now they could sing of His goodness and covenant love toward His people.
Second, notice that these people expressed their emotions in their praises. They shouted for joy and it was a loud shout (3:12-13). Some of us non-charismatics are a bit too restrained in our worship. Certainly there is the danger of emotion pumped up by sentimental tunes sung over and over until they produce the desired state of ecstasy. That is wrong. But if our focus is on our great, faithful, loving, covenant-keeping God and the truth of His Word, it should affect our emotions! How can we not be moved when we think on His abundant grace? Finally,
The young people were thrilled as they saw the foundation of the temple laid. All they had ever known was Babylon and its temples for idols. Here they were, back in the land of promise, in the city of God’s choosing, and the foundation for the Lord’s house was laid! They had never seen anything like it!
But the old timers had seen something far greater: Solomon’s Temple in all its golden glory. For them, this puny foundation amidst the rubble and broken down walls of Jerusalem was pitiful. So while the young men shouted for joy, the old men wept in grief. You couldn’t tell who was laughing and who was crying, except that the division pretty much fell along age lines.
There were two dangers, as there always are in these matters. The old guys could have discouraged the younger men from this new beginning. That would have been tragic. They had to start somewhere, and even though this new beginning didn’t match the former glory, it was a start, and it was where God was now working. The other danger was that the young guys could have ignored the wisdom and experience of the old guys, in which case they would have made more mistakes and repeated the failures of the past. The older folks needed the enthusiasm, energy, and joy of the younger folks, and the younger folks needed the wisdom, maturity, and experience of the older folks.
There are churches made up of a few old folks clinging to their favorite old hymns and their King James Bibles. They can’t understand why the younger folks don’t join them, and they’re dwindling in numbers. Other churches are made up mostly of young people who have cast off the traditions of the older folks. Often they are exciting, growing churches that have almost no resemblance to churches of the past. But they’re in danger of casting off centuries of Christian heritage and of making some serious mistakes that could be avoided if they would learn from the older generation. We need all ages in God’s church, and we all should learn from one another.
Do you need a new beginning with God?
New beginnings with God are always possible and must focus on the cross, on obedience to God’s Word, and on building His house.
Wherever you’re at, God’s door is open. He invites you to a new beginning with Himself.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Chuck Swindoll has a book titled, Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back [Thomas Nelson, 1980]. That title fits Ezra 4. God had stirred up the heart of the pagan King Cyrus to issue a decree for the Jews to return to their land and rebuild His temple. Hurrah, one step forward! Fifty thousand Jews responded by giving up their lives in Babylon and making the long, dangerous trek back to the land. Two steps forward! They rebuilt the altar, gathered in Jerusalem, celebrated the Feast of Booths, and laid the foundation for the new temple. Three steps forward!
Then the enemy hit and the work on the temple stopped. One step back. The work ceased for 16 long years. Two steps back. They were still in the land (one step ahead), but there was no center for worship in Jerusalem. The people, intimidated by their enemies, settled into a routine of life that got along without temple worship until God stirred up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (5:1), who got the rebuilding of the temple moving again.
Last week we looked at a new beginning with God. New beginnings are exciting and filled with hope. Things don’t have to be as they have been during our time in Babylon. By His abundant grace, we can turn back to the Lord and start afresh. But no sooner have we turned back than the enemy hits and we suffer a spiritual setback. The spiritual high that we have enjoyed is followed by a deep spiritual low. We’re not sure that we want to ride the roller coaster back up only to face another sickening drop. So we settle into spiritual mediocrity. That’s what happened in Ezra 4. The lesson for us is…
Whenever you make a commitment to the Lord, be prepared to face the enemy’s unrelenting attempt to set you back.
Verse 1 says that the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that they were building a temple to the God of Israel. We cannot build, whether a church building to further the ministry or building our own spiritual lives, without the enemy hearing about it. He will come prowling, subtly at first, but more aggressively if we resist his first attempts. To be forewarned is to be forearmed:
It is crucial to remember this! What often happens is, a person makes a new beginning with God, either at conversion or after a time of captivity in Babylon (the world). He naively assumes that since he has now turned to the Lord, everything will go well from here on out. Finally, God is now on his side. His hopes have never been higher. Just then—wham! The enemy hits, he goes down, and he feels lower than he did before he turned back to the Lord.
Satan has a number of tricks or tools in his bag:
Their first ploy was, “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria” (4:2). If that day was like our day, Zerubbabel and Jeshua probably didn’t have a waiting list of those who wanted to help, but couldn’t because there were so many workers. Along come some locals who offer to work with them. It could have been a bridge of outreach, to build relationships while they worked together. It was an opportunity to befriend their neighbors.
In light of that, their answer hits us in the face like a wet dishrag: “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us” (4:3). How rude can you get! That’s no way to win friends!
But they were right. To find out why they were right, you have to understand 2 Kings 17:24-41. These people had been brought from Babylon and its surrounding areas into the Northern Kingdom after its fall in 722 B.C. At the beginning of their living there, they did not fear the Lord, and He sent lions that killed some of them. They assumed that their problems stemmed from not knowing the custom of the god of the land. So they called in a priest from Israel who taught them about the Lord. They began sacrificing to the Lord, but they also continued worshipping their own gods from Babylon. As 2 Kings 17:41 sums up, “So while these nations feared the Lord, they also served their idols; their children likewise and their grandchildren, as their fathers did, so they do to this day.”
The problem of these people (who were the forefathers of the New Testament Samaritans) was syncretism. They blended false religions with the worship of the one true God. They added God to their pantheon, but they never dropped their idols. If they had worked together with the returned exiles, the Lord’s people would have fallen into spiritual compromise, mingling idolatry with the worship of God.
The danger of the appeal of these enemies was that their words were not absolute lies. They were partially true. They did worship God and sacrifice to Him. The problem was, they did not worship God alone! Some of the returned remnant could have accused Zerubbabel and Jeshua of being too hard on these men: “They believe in God, just as we do. Why not make peace with them and let them work together with us?” The answer is, for the same reason that you don’t drink water that is only a little bit polluted. It will poison you!
There are great pressures today to compromise the gospel by joining with those who claim to believe it, but who add things to it that totally destroy the grace of God. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Jesus is God and that He died on the cross to save us from our sins. They believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. The only “little” problem is, they believe that we are not saved by faith in Christ alone. They believe that to be saved we must add our works to what Christ did on the cross. Evangelical pastors are under immense pressure to work with the Catholic Church in the cause of Christ. Many influential evangelical leaders have signed two documents urging us to bridge the gap with Rome. But if we do, we compromise the pure gospel of God’s grace and mingle it with the idols of worldly religion.
If we resist the enemy’s subtle approach, he will show his true colors by a more aggressive opposition.
“Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah” (4:3). We are not told specifically how they did this. Maybe they said, “If you rebuild this temple, it’s just going to get torn down again.” Maybe they knew that thousands would flock to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, and said, “We don’t want this kind of traffic in our backyard! Build your temple somewhere else.” If it were our day, they would be down at city hall, protesting the zoning laws or environmental impact!
Satan often uses the tool of discouragement. He whispers to us, “What you’re doing won’t make any difference in this world or in eternity. Those kids you teach don’t appreciate your efforts. Why bother? Just quit and enjoy yourself.” He tries to discourage pastors when people we have worked with turn against us, spread unjustified criticism, and lead others out of the church. “You see! You’re just laboring in vain!”
After discouraging the people, “they frightened them from building” (4:4). When you’re discouraged, fear can easily creep in. Many a pastor has wrestled with thoughts like, “What if your critics get you fired? How are you going to make a living and support your family? What if the critics lead away the big givers? How is your church going to make its budget?” Discouragement quickly turns into many fears about the future.
They “hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia” (4:5). Whether these hired counselors operated at the royal court or whether they circulated among the Jews, or both, they spread half-truths and misinformation to undermine the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. “These men are just out to build a kingdom for themselves. They’re going to rebel against the king. They’re lining their own pockets with the construction money.” The rumors started flying to frustrate the counsel of these godly leaders.
In 4:6-23, we have a long parenthesis where Ezra shares examples of the opposition that came later. He carefully names the different kings that he is referring to so that his readers would not misunderstand. These later examples did not concern the rebuilding of the temple, but of the city and the walls during the reign of King Artaxerxes (4:12), whom Nehemiah served. Israel’s enemies wrote this letter to Artaxerxes that was filled with false accusations and half-truths. They said that if the city were rebuilt, the Jews would stop paying taxes (4:13). That will get any king’s attention!
The critics also claimed to be loyal to the king. The literal phrase is, “we eat the salt of the palace” (4:14). The Egyptian kings had made salt a royal monopoly, and perhaps the Persians had also. Our English word salary comes from the Latin salarium, which was the ration of salt given to soldiers. Thus we have the expression, “a man is not worth his salt” (Edwin Yamauchi, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 4:632). But, being loyal to the palace, the critics claimed that they did not want to see the king dishonored by these rebellious Jews. Thus they advised him to look it up in his record books and he would find that Jerusalem had a record of being a rebellious and evil city (4:12, 15). If he didn’t stop them, they would be true to their past and rebel again.
Again, these were half-truths and misinformation. True, Israel had rebelled in the past against tyrants who had forced them into subjection. But to smear the city with such broad strokes was both unfair and untrue. The Lord had told Jeremiah to tell the people to seek the welfare of Babylon and pray to the Lord on its behalf while they were there (Jer. 29:7). No mention is made about that here. Satan uses the same trick to smear God’s servants today. He takes a partial truth and paints it with broad strokes to make a man of God look extreme or unstable.
Scholars think that verse 7 may constitute a letter that we do not have a copy of, whereas the following verses describe another letter that is quoted. But in both cases, the letters came from multiple parties joined together against the Jews. The ploy behind such tactics is to imply, “Everyone is against these people.” Just look at the names and different backgrounds. If all of these men from such different backgrounds and places can agree together against these Jews, the Jews must be the problem! The majority must be right; these Jews are the source of the trouble!
Even so today, the enemy operates by appealing to popular opinion against the Lord’s people: “These narrow-minded, intolerant, Bible-believing Christians are the problem. They’re like the Taliban, trying to impose their views on everyone else! The majority of Americans believe in God, but we don’t believe in such an intolerant, unloving God as these people do. We believe in the basic teachings of the Bible, but we aren’t so narrow or old fashioned as to think that it is literally true.” So they claim to believe in God, but support “reproduction rights,” which means killing babies; and “celebrating diversity,” which means promoting homosexuality.
King Artaxerxes issued a decree to stop the work, providentially adding, “until a decree is issued by me” (4:21). Thankfully, that decree was issued after Nehemiah tactfully sought the king’s permission to return and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. But on this occasion, king’s decree in hand, Israel’s enemies went quickly and stopped the Jews by force of arms (4:23). Verse 24 goes back chronologically to verse 5, not to verse 23. The result of the opposition was that the work on God’s house ceased for 16 years.
Even so, the enemy today works through government channels and judicial cases to enact laws that oppose Christianity and to prohibit Christians from living as God would have us to live. We now have no-fault divorce laws that undermine the lifelong commitment of marriage and enable couples to split up for any reason. Laws protect mothers from killing unwanted children, right up to the point of birth. The day is not very far away in which it will be illegal to spank your child without being charged with child abuse. A final tactic of Satan is,
Verses 6-23 chronicle events that happened up to 80 years after the events of verses 1-5 & 24. Ezra may have included these later events not only to give examples of opposition, but also to prove that the decision to reject the help of the enemies (4:1) was right. Also, these verses show that Ezra’s later strong contention against the mixed marriages of the returned exiles was well-founded (Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 48). They also show the unrelenting nature of Satan’s opposition. He does not give up after one setback. He keeps on countering whatever the Lord’s people try to do to move ahead spiritually. If he can get you to kick back and give up, he has achieved his objective. That leads to…
The prophet Haggai shows that many of the Jews had gotten distracted with building their own homes and thus had neglected building the Lord’s house (Hag. 1:4). I’ve seen this happen over and over. Someone gets excited about serving the Lord. They jump into their new ministry with enthusiasm. But the enemy hits them, often with criticism from fellow believers. They get hurt, drop out, and think, “If that’s the thanks I get for trying to serve, forget it.” They may still attend church occasionally, but they never will get involved in serving again.
Some of the Jews may have thought, “Well, at least we’re out of Babylon and back in the land. If we can’t have a temple, we’ll have to do without.” But without the temple, the Jews couldn’t worship God as they should have. They wouldn’t have had the spiritual center for the nation. Some Christians try to make a new beginning with the Lord, but the enemy attacks. They back off and decide to settle into a mediocre spiritual existence.
Perhaps some of the people grumbled against Zerubbabel and Jeshua for their scheme of rebuilding the temple: “Things were going okay before we started this project. Why did our leaders ever get us into this battle? Maybe it wasn’t God’s will.”
We need to keep in mind that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the unseen spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Otherwise, when things go wrong at church or in your relationships with other Christians, it’s easy to grumble against God or against the leaders God has put over you. Instead of working together, praying together, and moving ahead with what the Lord wants done, the church can fragment into angry factions, each blaming the other for problems that really are coming from the enemy.
I realize that God does have His timetable, and that often it does not coincide with my timetable! But through Haggai (1:2), the Lord quotes this people as saying, “The time has not come, even the time for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt.” So they focused on building their own homes and 16 years after the temple foundation had been laid, there was no further progress.
It’s easy to spiritualize our laziness by saying that it must not be the Lord’s will or His timing for something to happen that He wants us to take the initiative to do. We mistakenly assume that if the Lord is in it, we won’t have hassles, setbacks, and frustrations trying to get it done.
Reading Christian biographies can help here. You hear about a man like Hudson Taylor and wrongly assume that he started the China Inland Mission and (presto!) thousands came to Christ. He did start the mission and eventually thousands did come to Christ, but not without innumerable problems and setbacks that had to be overcome. Reading the story of what he went through can give you the perspective and strength to endure when you face strong opposition in whatever God calls you to do.
Thus our spiritual enemy will vigorously oppose every attempt at spiritual advance. There are some wrong ways to respond to his attacks. Finally,
There are many more strategies than I can list here but, for sake of time, I will mention four:
In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul has just told the church to forgive the man who had sinned, but repented. Then he explains, “so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” From the Garden of Eden on (including our text), the Bible shows us how craftily Satan works to tempt and deceive God’s people. To know his schemes arms you to stand and fight when he strikes.
James 4:7 tells us, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” You don’t have to memorize seven steps or special prayers to overcome the devil. Just say no! Put your spiritual armor in place (Eph. 6:10-20) and resist!
Before telling us to resist the devil, James 4:7 says, “Submit therefore to God.” He goes on to say, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (4:8). If God allows the enemy to cause you trials, your responsibility is to submit to God, knowing that He can lift the trials the minute He sees that it is for your good. Rather than pull away from God in the trial, draw near to Him, knowing that He cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7-11).
It’s a lifelong battle. If we try to do anything significant for the Lord, the enemy will hear that we’re building and will stir up opposition. If we give up, he wins and God’s kingdom suffers. If we persevere, His kingdom advances.
When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home and he had to work to help support them. When he was nine, his mother died. At 22, he lost his job as a store clerk. He wanted to go to law school, but lacked the education. At 23, he went into debt to become a partner in a small store. At 26, his business partner died, leaving him a huge debt that took years to repay.
At 28, after courting a girl for four years, he asked her to marry him. She said no. At 37, on his third try, he was elected to Congress, but two years later, he failed to be reelected. At 41, his four-year-old son died. At 45, he ran for the Senate and lost. At 47, he failed as the vice-presidential candidate. At 49, he again ran for the Senate and lost. At 51, he was elected president of the United States. Many consider that man, Abraham Lincoln, the greatest leader our country has ever had (Leadership, Winter, 1983). Lincoln suffered numerous setbacks in his personal life and career, but he persevered and eventually succeeded.
You will suffer numerous setbacks if you commit yourself to the Lord and try to follow Him. Be prepared for the enemy’s attacks and don’t give up!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Have you ever been discouraged? That’s like asking, “Are you human?” Rare, if not non-existent, is the person who has never been discouraged. Many well known, successful pastors have struggled with discouragement: Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Alexander Whyte, John Henry Jowett, Andrew Bonar, and G. Campbell Morgan all admitted to times of serious discouragement (Warren, Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants [Baker], pp.263-269).
Why do we become discouraged? Sometimes discouragement stems from a physical cause. We are simply tired and worn out from working too long and too hard without a break. Or perhaps a bodily illness inclines us toward depression and discouragement.
Another cause of discouragement is that we can be too idealistic. This is a special hazard of pastors. Warren Wiersbe observes, “The pastor, if he is dedicated at all, is a man of ideals; he wants to achieve for the glory of God. Yet, no matter how hard he prays and works, it seems that his goals forever elude him” (ibid., p. 265). He goes on to tell how G. Campbell Morgan astounded his congregation at London’s Westminster Chapel on the tenth anniversary of his ministry there by telling them that he considered himself a failure! “Yet,” Wiersbe says, “he had rescued his church from almost certain failure and had made it the focal point for evangelical Bible study in the entire English-speaking world!” (ibid.)
Coupled with idealism, discouragement often comes when people disappoint us. We were counting on someone who let us down. We had high hopes for a person who turned against us or failed spiritually and morally. Pastors especially are subject to disappointment when someone who made a good beginning in Christ turns back to the world. It’s not hard to hear the discouragement in Paul’s lonely voice from prison, “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10).
Pastors also are often the objects of criticism and slander. If you don’t keep your focus on the Lord, laboring for His “well done,” you can get discouraged. When Charles Spurgeon began his ministry in London at age 20, he was barraged with criticism in the press, much of it from other ministers who were jealous of his success (over 5,000 flocked to hear him each week). Several pastors wrote that they doubted his conversion. Others predicted that he would be like a rocket that would climb high and then drop out of sight. Another asked for proof that Spurgeon was the Lord’s servant and that his ministry was heart-searching, Christ-exalting, truth-unfolding, sinner-converting, church-feeding, and soul-saving (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:305)! Reading that in light of history makes you laugh!
Disappointment with God is another cause of discouragement. You prayed and worked for something, but it did not happen. As far as you could tell, it would have been for God’s glory if it had come about, but it fell apart. You even had claimed a promise from the Bible as you prayed and worked, but from your perspective, God didn’t keep His promise. You begin to wonder whether you should ever try again to do anything for the Lord.
People try to deal with spiritual discouragement in many wrong ways. Many plunge themselves into other things that they think will bring them fulfillment: entertainment, sports, travel, or their careers. Tragically, some turn to drugs or alcohol or adultery. All these things only dig them deeper in discouragement. A few become so discouraged that they take their own lives.
In Ezra 4:4, we read, “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building.” The work on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem stopped for about 16 years. According to Haggai 1:4-9, the people’s focus shifted to building their own houses, and they neglected building God’s house. If the subject came up, they responded, “We tried that. It didn’t work!”
How could this dismal situation be reversed? How could the Lord’s people put their discouragement behind them so that they could finish the task of rebuilding the temple? To turn things around, the Lord raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who spoke to the people in the name of the God of Israel (Ezra 5:1). Under the renewed leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the people began to rebuild and in spite of further opposition, the work was finished in a little over four years. So our chapter gives us some clues on how to overcome discouragement in our work for the Lord:
To overcome discouragement, we need a fresh encounter with God’s Word, we need to get back to work for Him and to persevere, trusting Him to accomplish His will through us.
Derek Kidner writes, “Like every spiritual advance, from Abraham’s to the missionary expansion in Acts, this venture began with a word from the Lord. And in common with the rest, it was quickly tested and threatened” (Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 53). The Old Testament prophets did not so much expound on God’s already-written word; rather, they received new revelation directly from God for His people. When these prophets spoke, the Jewish people realized that God was speaking through them.
We no longer have prophets to give direct revelation from God. But in this case, we have the heart of the prophets’ messages preserved for us in the Old Testament canon. When we are discouraged, the thing that will most refresh us is to hear God speaking to us in our particular circumstances through His Word. Although some will testify that the “open the Bible at random” method has worked, I would not recommend it. I recommend reading the Word consecutively or systematically. I have often found that the passage of that day has particular relevance to the very circumstances I am going through at the time.
There are a number of ways that you can have a fresh encounter with God’s Word, but in every case, you must have exposure to that Word. In other words, it won’t happen if you never open your Bible or sit under the preaching of the Word. When you are discouraged, you may not feel like getting into the Word, but you must go against your feelings, if need be, and expose yourself to the Word. You can listen to the Bible on tape or CD. I often find great help reading the sermons of men of God from the past, like Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, or John Bunyan. You may need to schedule a special time on a day off to take your Bible and get alone with God. But God speaks to us through His Word, and so you must take the time and effort to expose yourself to it.
When you do, God’s Word will do at least four things:
That is the main thrust of Haggai. He directly confronted the people with their sin of building their own houses while neglecting God’s house. God used him to stir up Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the people so that “they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hag. 1:14).
You may be thinking, “When I’m discouraged, why would I want to be confronted with my sin? That doesn’t sound very encouraging!” It may not be pleasant at the moment, but it’s the medicine we all need. Sin destroys us and damages those who are close to us. To neglect the Bible because it confronts our sin is like avoiding the doctor when we know that we have cancer. It may not be pleasant to go through the treatment, but without it we will die. Scripture is profitable for reproof and correction (2 Tim. 3:16).
While Haggai confronted the people’s sin, Zechariah gave them hope that God would remember them and keep His covenant promises to send the Messiah. Zechariah’s name means “whom the Lord remembers.” His father was Berechiah, which means “the Lord blesses.” His grandfather (mentioned in Ezra 5:1) was Iddo, which means “at the appointed time.” Those three names sum up the message of Zechariah: “Whom the Lord remembers, He blesses at the appointed time.”
Although Zechariah was the prophet of hope and encouragement, he began his message by talking about God’s fierce wrath because of His people’s sin (Zech. 1:2). But immediately he follows it with the Lord’s gracious invitation, “‘Return to Me,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘that I may return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 1:3). If we will repent, God will be gracious to us.
This is illustrated in our text: Ezra 5:1 is a new, new beginning. The first new beginning was in chapter 3, when the returned exiles gathered in Jerusalem, set up the altar, celebrated the Feast of Booths, and laid the foundation of the temple. Then the opposition discouraged and frightened them, resulting in 16 years of doing nothing about the temple. But now, we have a second new beginning. Thank God that He allows for new, new beginnings, and new, new, new beginnings!
These two prophets spoke “in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them” (5:1). “Them” is grammatically ambiguous. It could and certainly does refer to the prophets, who were under God’s lordship. But it also refers to the people who were God’s chosen nation. Haggai exhorted them to get their priorities in order by putting God’s house first. Wherever we turn in God’s Word, it confronts our skewed priorities. We’re all prone to let the things of this world crowd the things of God out of first place in our lives. The Word keeps calling us back to the basic priority: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
Without the word from these two prophets, most of the Jews back in the land probably thought that they were doing okay. They may have congratulated themselves for giving up their comfortable lives in Babylon and making the long and dangerous journey across the desert. Perhaps they thought, “Sure, we don’t have a temple yet, but these things take time. The Jews back in Babylon don’t have a temple, either. We’re better off than they are. At least we came back to the land!” But then the prophets spoke and the people realized that to please God, they needed to commit themselves to rebuild His temple.
It’s easy to think that you’re doing okay in the Lord if you compare yourself to other Christians. We always seem to compare ourselves to those who aren’t quite as committed as we see ourselves! But then you come to God’s Word, and it exposes the thoughts and intentions of your heart! You realize that God wants purity in your thought life. He calls you to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You learn that Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her. But you don’t love His church like that! So the Word shows how we need to adjust our thinking, our priorities, and our behavior to please God. To overcome discouragement, we need a fresh encounter with God’s Word.
Discouragement had led the people to abandon work on the temple for 16 years. These prophets called them back to work. There is something encouraging about serving the Lord, especially if you’ve been on the sidelines for a while. There is the encouragement that He can even use me, in spite of my previous failures. Whether it’s physical labor or being used spiritually in someone’s life, there is joy in knowing that you are laboring for God’s eternal kingdom, and that someday you will hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
One cause of discouragement is that we become self-focused. Often that self-focus generates self-pity and self-justification for why we quit serving the Lord. With Elijah, we begin to say, “I have been very zealous for the Lord,” but everyone else has “forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets …. I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). That kind of self-focus prevents us from seeing the needs of others and ministering to those needs.
A woman who was very depressed once came to me for counsel. After listening for a long time to her problems, I asked, “What is your ministry?” She said, “What did you say?” She had heard me, but she was dumbfounded by the question. After I repeated it, she said that she did not have any ministry and that she had never even thought about the question. I told her that I would be depressed, too, if I just sat around thinking about my problems. Go over to the Sunshine Rescue Mission and offer to sweep floors or do dishes. It will do wonders for your discouragement. Get back to work for the Lord!
As we saw last week, the enemy will not be idle when we make a new beginning with the Lord. No sooner had the people begun to build than Tattenai, the governor over Israel, and his sidekick and their colleagues came and challenged them (5:3). In their defense, they were only doing their job. They reported to King Darius, who began his reign with a number of challenges to his rule. These men were making sure that the Jews were not plotting rebellion against the king. But even so, the enemy was using them to threaten the people to abandon the work again.
But in this case, they did not demand that the work stop until a word came from the king. Rather, they permitted the people to continue building until such a word came back, which would have taken four or five months. The reason given is, “The eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews” (5:5). Joseph Parker observes, “The eye of the enemy and the eye of God are continually upon us in all the work of life” (Preaching Through the Bible [Baker reprint], 10:174). Knowing that the eye of God is upon us, we can persevere even when the enemy is watching and trying to get us to quit.
Tattenai sent a letter to Darius, which our text quotes. It reveals several interesting things. For one, it is surprisingly accurate. Unlike the letter of 4:11-16, which distorted the truth to make the Jews look worse than they were, this letter just states the facts, asking for verification. I don’t know whether the governor assumed that the Jews’ story was so far from the truth that the king would easily disprove it, or whether he was a man of integrity who was just doing his job. But he states the Jews’ claims accurately and asks the king to confirm or deny those claims.
Also, the letter shows that the Jews gave a strong testimony to Tattenai and his colleagues of God and His ways. They let them know that they were servants of the God of heaven and earth (5:11). They give a brief history of Israel, that formerly they had worshiped at a temple which a great king of Israel [Solomon] had built. But because of their sin, God had given the nation into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple and deported the people to Babylon. But King Cyrus had issued a decree to the Jews to return and rebuild the temple. He had even restored the gold and silver utensils and entrusted them to Sheshbazzar (who was either a co-leader with Zerubbabel or another name for Zerubbabel). Perhaps the Jews even showed these utensils to Tattenai as proof. But the point is, the Jews had given Tattenai and his colleagues a strong witness about God and His covenant faithfulness to His people.
There is an application for us in overcoming discouragement. One way to persevere in the face of opposition is to give a strong witness of our faith in Jesus Christ. That commits us so that we know others will be watching us. If we will be bold for the Lord, we can know that His eye is upon us in whatever response our enemies come back with.
Thus the first thing we need to overcome discouragement is a fresh encounter with God’s Word. If our discouragement has caused us to quit, we need to get back to work for Him. And, we need to persevere when opposition hits, as it will, knowing that His eye is upon us. Finally,
Behind these events of the renewal of God’s people, God was sovereignly at work. Mervin Breneman writes, “Ezra-Nehemiah constantly reiterates God’s providence in the life of his people. The reestablishment of the covenant community was the result of a continuing series of God’s providential acts” (The New American Commentary [Broadman], pp. 108-109). The fact that this governor allowed the work on the temple to continue while inquiry was sent to Darius was due to God’s eye on His people. Breneman continues, “In order to fulfill his purpose, God used and coordinated the preaching of the prophets, the work of the leaders, the determination of the whole community, and the decisions of ‘pagan’ government officials” (ibid., p. 109).
It’s also obvious that the Jews saw God’s sovereign dealings with them in history, and this knowledge enabled them to put the current opposition in proper perspective. As Joseph Parker observes, “They went back to the beginning with certainty, and traced the whole providential line most distinctly and vividly, thus always keeping memory and imagination abreast with the facts on which they relied as proofs of the divine election and rule” (p. 175).
Along the same lines, Breneman applies the Jews’ history to us by saying, “The Christian faith is tied to the fact that God made promises and fulfilled them in history, exemplified by Jesus, who actually came, died, and rose again. Although God is sovereign, decisions we make do affect history” (p. 111). As Paul exhorted, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). We can know that as we work for the Lord, we are working in harmony with the sovereign God who is working out His purposes in history through His people.
As we’ll see next week, the temple was completed on March 12, 515 B.C., a little over 70 years after its destruction. There was great joy as the returned exiles gathered there to celebrate the Passover. We read the source of that joy (6:22): “for the Lord had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” When our discouragement is turned to encouragement, it is because of God. He gets all the glory.
To modernize a familiar legend, the devil had a garage sale. He marked all his tools with their appropriate price: hatred, envy, lust, deceit, lying, and pride. Laid apart from all of these was a rather harmless looking but well-worn tool marked much higher than the rest. A buyer pointed to it and asked, “What is that tool?” The devil replied, “That is discouragement.”
“Why is it priced so high?” the man asked.
“Because it is more useful to me than the others. I can pry open a man’s heart with that when I can’t get near to him with the other tools. Once inside, I can make him do whatever I choose. It’s badly worn because I use it on almost everyone. But few know that it belongs to me.”
The devil’s price was so high that the tool of discouragement was never sold. He still uses it on God’s people. By God’s grace, through His Word, we can overcome discouragement. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
How high is the pursuit of joy on your priority list? Do you view it as something that is not only nice to pursue, but absolutely necessary? Many Christians view the Christian life primarily in terms of duty and obedience, and those are not minor themes in the Bible. But how many Christians view the pursuit of joy, gladness, and delight in God as a prime duty?
All too often, we view God as a stern, cosmic killjoy, who doesn’t want anyone to get too carried away with having a good time in life. The Puritans are often falsely caricaturized as being against joy and pleasure. Someone lampooned a Puritan as a person who suffers from an overwhelming dread that somewhere, sometime, somehow, someone may be enjoying himself. That’s a false view. It was the Puritans who said, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
John Piper has helpfully modified that classic sentence: “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever” (Desiring God [Multnomah Books], 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 15). He also rightly says, “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him” (ibid., p. 9, italics his). Thus if glorifying God is our highest aim, then finding joy and satisfaction in God must be our deliberate, lifelong, consuming pursuit. To the degree that we fall short of fullness of joy in God, we fail to glorify Him as He deserves.
The joy that God imparts to His people is the theme of Ezra 6. The chapter begins with the outcome in question. The work on rebuilding the temple had stopped for 16 years due to opposition from the people in the land. Then, under the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the work resumed. But they barely got started again when Tattenai, the governor of the province that included Israel, confronted the Jews with whether they had proper permission to rebuild the temple. They told him about Cyrus’ decree. Because God’s eye was upon them, Tattenai permitted them to continue construction until word got back from the current king, Darius, as to what to do (5:3-5).
In chapter 6, Darius makes a search and eventually finds the decree of Cyrus in the government archives. He respects that decree and sends back a ruling that not only should the work go on, but also it ought to be supported by government funds. Thus the temple was completed on March 12, 515 B.C. The Lord’s people gathered to celebrate the dedication of this temple with joy (6:16). This was followed by a celebration of the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread “with joy.” Ezra explains the source of that joy: “for the Lord had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (6:22). We learn:
God’s aim is to give us great joy in Him and His sovereign ways.
Joy and gladness in the Lord are not minor themes in the Bible. Moses told Israel that they should seek the Lord at the place He would choose, and that there they shall “rejoice in all [their] undertakings in which the Lord [their] God has blessed [them]” (Deut. 12:5, 7). Later he warned them, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart, … therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you” (Deut. 28:47-48).
The Psalms are full of joy and gladness. God is the psalmist’s “exceeding joy” (Ps. 43:4). We are commanded, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful singing” (Ps. 100:1-2). “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart” (Ps. 32:11). “But let all who take refuge in You be glad, let them ever sing for joy; and may You shelter them, that those who love Your name may exult in You” (Ps. 5:11). “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Ps. 16:11).
Jesus told the disciples to “rejoice that [their] names are recorded in heaven.” Then He “rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit” at the thought of God’s sovereign ways in salvation (Luke 10:20-21). “For the joy set before Him,” He endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). He told the disciples that He had spoken to them so that His joy may be in them, and that their joy may be made full (John 15:11). The reason that they were to ask in His name and receive was that their joy may be made full (John 16:24). He promised that on judgment day, those who serve Him faithfully will be told, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
The apostle Paul commands us, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). He told the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:24) and the Philippians (1:25) that he was working with them for their joy. He listed joy as the second fruit that the Spirit produces in believers (Gal. 5:22).
The apostle Peter reported how those who believe in Jesus “greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). To a suffering church he wrote, “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). John’s Revelation (19:6-7) pictures the saints rejoicing throughout eternity: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.”
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this theme in Scripture. But this should suffice to prove that joy in the Lord is not an optional or secondary matter for the believer. Rather, it is the very essence of the Christian faith, as Jonathan Edwards argues so convincingly in his “Treatise on Religious Affections” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:237).Or, as Alexander Maclaren comments on our text, “It is, in one aspect, the end of God’s dealings, that we should be glad in Him” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker reprint], 3:301).
Our text unfolds five strands of the joy that God wants us to have as His people:
God’s remarkable providential care for His people underlies this entire account. Tattenai had sent his letter to Darius, expecting the king to send back orders to shut down this work at once. God’s providence is seen in the very fact of the king finding the decree of Cyrus from some 18 years before. They did not find it at Babylon, but rather in the fortress in Ecbatana, Cyrus’ summer residence.
God’s providential care is further seen in that Darius did not say, “I don’t care what my predecessor said. I command you to stop this rebellious work at once!” Rather, he not only told Tattenai to keep away from the project (6:6), but also to fund the project out of his tax revenues (6:8-9)! And, to add some motivation, he decreed that anyone who violated his edict should be impaled on a timber drawn from his house, and the house should be made a heap of rubble! He added the wish that the God who has caused His name to dwell there would overthrow any king or people who attempted to destroy this house of God (6:11-12).
God’s providential care is further alluded to in the mention that the building was completed according to God’s command, and also “the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes” (6:14). Why does Ezra mention Artaxerxes, who reigned about 50 years after the completion of the temple? Probably he did it for political protocol, in that Artaxerxes was the reigning king when Ezra wrote. Since he had been kind enough to issue a decree for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, Ezra wanted to give him credit in case he read this account.
God’s providential working is directly stated in 6:22, where it is stated that the Lord “had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward” the Jews. It is unusual to refer to the Persian king as the king of Assyria. Perhaps Ezra did this to remind Israel that Assyria, Israel’s former enemy, had been conquered by the Persians whose king was friendly toward Israel (Stan Evers, Doing a Great Work [Evangelical Press], p. 64). Behind all these remarkable events was God’s mighty hand, turning the king’s heart like channels of water wherever He wishes (Prov. 21:1).
Do you see and rejoice in God’s providential care for you in every little as well as major thing that happens to you? Jesus told us that not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father, and that He even knows the number of the hairs on our heads. Therefore, we should not fear, but should trust in God (Matt. 10:29-31). Since we are the living stones with which Jesus is now building His temple, the church, we can rest assured that He orders all things for our ultimate good. He will not discard or forget about His chosen people.
Tattenai and his colleagues did not diligently carry out the king’s decree to fund the rebuilding of the temple out of his tax revenues (6:13) because they thought it was a great idea! They did it with all diligence because they didn’t care for the alternative of being impaled on a timber from their houses. God used the decree of a pagan king to provide the materials for the temple and even the animals and other items for the sacrifices (6:9). King Darius was trying to cover all his bases by having the local people pray to their gods on behalf of him and his sons (6:10). But God used the king’s religious superstitions to provide for His people.
The Lord does not usually use pagan governments as the main source of material support for His church. But however He provides, whether through the tax breaks we receive from our government as a charitable, non-profit organization, or through the generous giving of the Lord’s people, God is the one who provides for His church as we wait upon Him through faith and prayer. And when we see God’s provision, we should be filled with joy. In 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 we see Paul brimming over with joy in the Lord at the generous gift of the Macedonians for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. He points out how our generous giving not only meets the needs of others, it also overflows through many thanksgivings to God, resulting in God being glorified (2 Cor. 9:12-13).
We should rejoice daily not only in how God provides for the work of His church, but also in how He provides for our personal needs. Songwriter Wendell Loveless told of a 64-year-old woman who had been confined to her bed for more than 16 years. She was in constant pain and unable to move her limbs. Yet she was one of the most thankful people Loveless had ever met.
She rejoiced that God had left her a great blessing—the use of her right thumb. Her other hand was stiff and completely useless. But with a two-pronged fork fastened to a stick, she could put on her glasses, feed herself, sip her tea through a tube, and turn the pages of a large Bible. Although it took great effort, everything she did was with the use of just one thumb.
She once told a visitor, “I have so much to be thankful for.” When asked why, she replied, “Now that my sins are forgiven, I can lie back and daily drink in the great love of Jesus my Savior.” Asked if at times she became despondent, she replied, “I’m perfectly content to lie here as long as the Lord keeps me in this world, and I’m also ready to leave whenever He calls me.” (“Our Daily Bread,” May, 1993.) She knew the joy of God’s provision!
The temple was finally finished, about 20 years after the foundation was laid, and just over four years after the rebuilding began again under the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah. There are differing views about the dimensions given in 6:3. These dimensions seem to exceed those of Solomon’s temple, which was 20 cubits wide, 60 cubits long, and 30 cubits high. But if this temple was bigger, it is hard to explain the disappointment of the old-timers when the foundation was laid (3:12). Since the length is not stated here, some think that the original text has been corrupted. Others suggest that these greater dimensions were the outside limits that Cyrus would support, but the actual building was much smaller, leading to the disappointment of some of the older Jews. But, whatever the solution, the temple was finished and the people rejoiced at its dedication (6:15-16).
While we can and should rejoice at the completion of a building project, we should find much greater joy when we see the Lord using us in the building of His spiritual temple, the church. There is great joy in heaven when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10). As the father of the prodigal explains to the grumbling brother, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found” Luke 15:32). Paul calls the Philippian church his joy and crown (Phil. 4:1). He says the same thing to the Thessalonians, that they are his joy and crown of exultation, his glory and joy (1 Thess. 2:19-20).
I admit that there can be a sense of frustration in ministry to people, in that the “project” is never completed, and there are many setbacks. You can’t step back and say, “Ah, look at that person: Complete in Christ!” Or, “Look at this church: Harmonious, mature, fruitful—the work is done!” But while that is so, we can rejoice in the progress in godliness that we see in others’ lives as God uses us in ministry to them. We can rejoice in that our work in the Lord is never in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). When we glorify God by bearing much fruit, our joy will be full (John 15:8, 11).
Thus God wants us to know the joy of His providential care for us; the joy of His provision for us; the joy of productivity in our service for Him.
When the temple was completed, the people gathered and “celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (6:16). Their offerings were not nearly on the grandiose scale of Solomon’s dedication (1 Kings 8:63), but it was a sincere offering of what they had. Concerning the sin offering, Derek Kidner observes, “It was a confession of failure but also of faith. There was still atonement and still the covenant with the whole people—for this was the implication of the twelve sacrifices” (Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 60, italics his). The appointment of the priests and Levites to their divisions and orders (6:18) shows their ongoing commitment to worship God.
Their observation of the Passover was a celebration of God’s gracious salvation, remembering how He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The Feast of Unleavened Bread that immediately followed symbolized the holy fellowship of a redeemed people with their God. For us, these feasts are consolidated in the Lord’s Supper, where we remember that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. “Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:8).
Sincere and heartfelt joy must accompany our praise in order for the praise to be genuine. C. S. Lewis said that as he was beginning to believe in God, he could not understand the demands in the Psalms that we praise God. He didn’t see the point in this; besides, it seemed to him to picture God as craving “for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments.” He goes on to show why he was wrong.
But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. … I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game….
My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. (Reflections on the Psalms pp. 94-95, cited by Piper, Desiring God, p. 18.)
John Piper, who cites Lewis and credits him with helping Piper get clear on this, adds,
Pursuing joy in God and praising God are not separate acts. “Praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.” Worship is not added to joy, and joy is not the by-product of worship. Worship is the valuing of God. And when this valuing is intense, it is joy in God. Therefore the essence of worship is delight in God, which displays His all-satisfying value (The Dangerous Duty of Delight [Multnomah Books], p. 24).
Spontaneous praise is good when you’re alone, but it’s better when you share the experience with others. Last Monday, Daniel Liba, our guest from Slovakia, Marla, and I sat on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and watched a spectacular sunset. I would have enjoyed it if I had been there alone, but it’s better to share it with others you know and love. It’s the same with worship. It’s great to enjoy the beauty of the Lord in your private devotions, but it’s better to join with others and praise Him corporately. Finally,
It is stated that Israel rebuilt the temple “according to the command of God” (6:14). They organized their worship “as it is written in the book of Moses” (6:18). Further, it is stated that “the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were pure” (6:20). Not only the returned exiles, but also “all those who had separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land” joined together “to seek the Lord God of Israel” by celebrating the Passover (6:21).
For there to be true joy in our worship, there must be holiness in our lives. We must separate ourselves from the impurity of the nations. It is hypocrisy that the Lord hates if we live “like the nations” all week and then put on a pious front to worship Him on Sundays. Contrary to popular opinion, purity of life and obedience to God do not rob us of joy. Purity and obedience are at the heart of true joy. Sin gives brief pleasure but lasting scars and pain. Obedience may be difficult at the moment, but it yields “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11).
C. S. Lewis said, “The ultimate purpose of God in all his work is to increase joy” (source unknown). He makes the radical suggestion that the thought that it is bad to desire our own good and enjoy it, is not a part of the Christian faith. He explains,
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased (in Piper, Desiring God, p. 17).
Lewis was saying what John Piper preaches so clearly, that God Himself is the source of infinite joy, and that we should pursue joy in Him with all our hearts.
So I ask you as I ask myself, “How high is the pursuit of joy on your priority list?” God’s aim is to give us great joy in Him and His sovereign ways. Only when we have true joy in God will we glorify Him as we should.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Over thirty years ago, I read a sermon that has impacted my life as much or more than any of the thousands of sermons that I have read. It is titled, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing,” by the late Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee (in Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 2:48-64). That sermon, based on the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000, has affected the entire direction and motivation of my personal life and my ministry.
Nee hammers home a simple but profound truth: “Everything in our service for the Lord is dependent on His blessing” (p. 48). He observes that in the feeding of the 5,000, the supply in hand was totally inadequate to meet the demand, and yet the demand was met. He says, “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply” (ibid.). That leads Nee to ask a question that I want you to ponder seriously: “Do we really prize the Lord’s blessing?” (p. 49). Do you really want and seek God’s blessing on your personal life, your family, your service for the Lord, and on His church?
We all know the right answer to that question. Few would be so brazen as to say, “No, I don’t want God’s blessing. I’d rather try to make my own blessings apart from God!” But I don’t want you to give a knee-jerk “yes” answer just because it is the obviously correct answer. I want you to think about the implications of the question before you answer.
There are a number of men in Scripture whom God blessed: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and David are prominent examples. But Ezra is also a man whom God blessed, even though he is not so well known as those other men are. We first meet him in chapter 7 of the book that bears his name. There is a 57-58 year gap between the events in chapters 6 and 7. The temple had been rebuilt under the ministries of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, aided by the preaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The exiles that had returned to Israel during that first wave were either dead or very old by now. They had settled into the land and, as we will see, in many cases had begun to blend together with the pagans of the land. The walls of Jerusalem had not been rebuilt, leaving the city vulnerable to attack. God raised up Ezra and Nehemiah to bring spiritual reform to His people.
Both men were born in Babylon and had close connections with King Artaxerxes. No doubt they both enjoyed comfortable living conditions there. But both men were burdened with the low spiritual state of the exiles that had returned to the land. Both men were willing to give up their comfortable situations in Babylon and endure the hardship and hassles to bring reform to God’s people. But how could they accomplish this overwhelming task?
The answer occurs in a phrase that first occurs three times in our chapter, and then five times in the rest of Ezra and Nehemiah: God’s hand was on these men (Ezra 7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31; Neh. 2:8, 18). God’s hand is another way of saying God’s blessing. God blessed these two men and their labors for Him. If we want His blessing or hand to rest on us, we would do well to study their lives. We could add more factors, but limiting ourselves to Ezra 7, we learn that…
To have God’s hand of blessing on us, we must study and obey His Word, with a view to teaching others and glorifying God for everything.
That theme is stated in Ezra 7:10, which explains why “the good hand of his God was upon him” (7:9): “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” The connection between Ezra and God’s Word is repeated no less than eight times (7:6, 10, 11, 12, 14, 21, 25, and 26)! There is a definite correlation between our commitment to know and obey God’s Word and His hand of blessing being upon us.
If you have God’s blessing on your life, you may die a painful martyr’s death in your twenties or you may live happily into your nineties. You may live in a physically impaired body like Joni Eareckson Tada or in a robust and healthy body. But either way, you will be irrepressibly joyous and successful in the true sense of the word if God’s hand of blessing rests on you.
The world’s blessings promise happiness but deliver ultimate emptiness and pain. Yet most people, and sadly, even many professing Christians, live for the world’s blessings. Last Sunday night, Marla and I had what was for us a first-time experience: we spent the night in Las Vegas. It was on the way to where we were going, the right distance for the driving time that we had, and the rooms were cheap. They hope to make up from your gambling what they discount on the price of the room. In our case they lost, but it was obvious that they were making out big time on everyone else!
It was amazing to see thousands of people sitting in the casinos of our hotel and in every hotel we walked by, playing the machines, hoping to strike it rich. I thought, “This isn’t just a freak occurrence! This happens all over this city every day and night of every week of every year!” Little old grannies and young people and foreigners were all feeding the machines in the hopes of hitting the jackpot. I wanted to scream, “What do you think you will gain if you win?” “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
God’s blessing is the only blessing that counts both for time and eternity. If you gain and die with the world’s blessings, but lack God’s blessing, woe to you! You are poor indeed! If you live and die with God’s blessings, even though you lack what the world calls “blessing,” you are truly blessed! As John Newton wrote, “Fading is the world’s best pleasure, all its boasted pomp and show; Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know” (“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” stanza 4).
Verses 1-5 trace Ezra’s family lineage back through 16 forefathers to Aaron the chief priest, brother of Moses. There are a number of gaps in the list. Seraiah (7:1) was the high priest at the time of Nebuchadnezzar, who executed him about 130 years before (2 Kings 25:18-21). Thus Ezra was a great or great-great grandson of Seraiah. The point of the genealogy is to show that Ezra was qualified as a priest to teach God’s law. Also, it “prepares us to meet a man of considerable importance” (Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 62).
You may be thinking: “If God’s blessing flows through family lines, that’s not fair! What if I came from a godless family? What hope is there for me to experience God’s blessing?”
The answer is, first, never ask God to be fair with you! That’s a bad prayer! You want mercy, not fairness. But, second, there is great hope for you, because you can be the start of a long heritage of God’s blessing on your children and grandchildren. You can’t do anything about your ancestors, but you can do some things that will positively affect your descendants. As Psalm 128:1 promises, “How blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways.” It goes on to show how the wife, children, and grandchildren of the man who fears the Lord will be blessed. No matter how rotten your upbringing, if you will follow the Lord, you will be blessed and you also will be the source of great blessing to your children and grandchildren, perhaps for many generations.
This genealogy also should serve as a warning to us who have been blessed with godly parents. Aaron had some sons who were consecrated as priests, but they did not obey the Lord and He struck them dead with fire from heaven (Lev. 10:1-3). Aaron also had a grandson, Phinehas (Ezra 7:5), who took bold action for God so that a plague was stopped among the Israelites. Israel had fallen into the insidious plot of Balaam, who counseled the Midianite king to seduce Israel into idolatry through intermarriage. An Israelite man brazenly had brought a Midianite woman into his tent in the sight of all Israel. Phinehas took a spear, went into the tent, and pierced them both through, probably while they were in the act of immorality!
As a result of Phinehas’ bold action, the Lord told Moses that He was giving to Phinehas His covenant of peace, and then added, “and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God” (Num. 25:13). Phinehas’ bold obedience resulted in blessing on his descendants for hundreds of years, right down to Ezra!
The lesson for us who have godly parents is, we can either disobey the Lord and deprive our descendants of God’s blessing, or we can be bold in obeying the Lord and bring His blessing on our descendants. But the point stands in Scripture, that God’s blessing flows through family lines. We never obey or sin in isolation. That sobering thought should motivate us to follow the Lord.
Just before He fed the 5,000, Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” John adds, “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do” (John 6:5-6). Philip does a quick calculation and answers, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” Philip and the disciples didn’t have 200 denarii, which was about 200 days’ wages. Even if they could scrape together that much, it would not have been sufficient for everyone to receive just a little!
But Jesus could do far beyond what human calculations and effort could ever hope to do. The result was that the people all ate “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11), and they even gathered up twelve baskets full of leftovers, a full basket for each disciple!
God’s hand of blessing on Ezra is seen in that this pagan king “granted him all he requested” (7:6). The king’s grant is stated in the letter that he gave to Ezra (7:12-26, written in Aramaic). To summarize, the king granted five things: (1) He authorized Ezra to go to Jerusalem and insure that God’s law was both taught and observed (7:14, 25). (2) He provided a generous grant to buy supplies and temple vessels for the temple worship (7:15-20). (3) He commanded the treasurers in the provinces to supplement anything else that Ezra needed, up to 3¾ tons of silver, 600 bushels of wheat, 600 gallons of wine, 600 gallons of olive oil, and salt without limit (7:21-22). (4) He exempted all temple officials and workers from taxation (7:24). And, (5) he authorized Ezra to set up a judicial system to see that these laws were obeyed and that violators were properly punished (7:25-26).
That is no doubt far more than Ezra dreamed that a pagan king would grant to him. From the king’s perspective, it was wise and cost-effective policy. He had already had trouble with Egypt revolting. He figured that if he granted political and religious self-governance to the Jews, they would live contentedly under his reign. Also, his superstitions motivated him: He didn’t want to incur the wrath of the God of heaven (7:23). By providing generously for the people who followed this God to worship Him as He prescribed, Artaxerxes hoped that this God would be nice to him and his sons. But God used the king’s superstitions and political strategies to bless His people through His servant Ezra.
Verse 27 makes it clear that it was none other than God who put it into the king’s heart to beautify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. But Ezra still had to go and ask for it (7:6, Kidner, p. 62). Sometimes the Bible compresses a lot into a passing phrase (“the king granted him all he requested,” 7:6)! To go before such a powerful monarch and his counselors and powerful princes (7:28) and ask for such extravagant provisions for a subject people whom the king easily could have exterminated, took some courage! The source of Ezra’s strength is stated: “Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God upon me” (7:28).
Thus we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and yet at the same time, it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). God’s blessing involves and requires our working, and yet it goes far beyond anything that we can do. I covet for my life, for my children and grandchildren, and for my ministry that God would work far beyond my effort, ability, or expectation. I hope that each of you will do the same. All of us should seek His blessing on our lives. But, how does that blessing come?
I realize that Ezra was specially gifted for the role of teaching God’s Word, and that not all are so gifted. But whether you are gifted to teach in a formal way or not, you are nonetheless required to learn God’s Word so that you know how He wants you to live. Every Christian wants to live in a manner pleasing to the Lord. To do so, you must grow in your understanding of His Word.
Concerning Ezra’s emphasis on God’s Law, Derek Kidner (p. 62) says, “indeed it was he, more than any other man, who stamped Israel with its lasting character as the people of a book.” Kidner also observes about verse 6 that it does not share the doubts of modern critics about the antiquity (Moses) or the authority (the Lord) of the law, “nor does it see Ezra as a reviser or compiler. He is concerned with it as something given” (p. 62, italics his). Modern critics sit in judgment on God’s Word. The proper order is to allow the Word to sit in judgment on us!
Bible scholars believe that Ezra wrote the great Psalm 119, which extols God’s Word for 176 acrostic verses. Ezra 7:6 says that he was “skilled in the law of Moses.” The word “skilled” means “swift” or “ready,” implying that Ezra was quick to understand and put together the various parts of God’s Word. While giftedness has something to do with it, skill also requires effort and practice. Ezra had “set his heart to study the law of the Lord” (7:10). It was a deliberate decision on his part to spend time in God’s Word.
Even if you are so gifted, studying God’s Word will not happen automatically and spontaneously. You have to discipline yourself to do it, and the minute you let up, other things will crowd out the Word. We all lead busy lives. We all have the same number of hours in our day. We all must make decisions about how we spend those hours. Will I read the paper, watch TV, play computer games, or get into God’s Word?
When you do spend time in the Word, make sure that your bottom line is obedience. Ezra “set his heart” not only to study God’s Word, but also “to practice it” (7:10). It is nonsense to say that you want God’s blessing while you are knowingly living in disobedience to His Word. The goal of Bible study is not to fill our heads with facts, although facts are important. It is to change our hearts and lives into conformity to Jesus Christ. Note, by the way, that Artaxerxes trusted Ezra’s character and integrity to the extent that he gave him enormous material resources and told him to use it for the temple. If anything was left, he told him to do with it according to the will of his God (7:18)! Ezra’s obedience was obvious to this pagan king. Our obedience should be obvious to those in the world who know us.
Again, not everyone is gifted to teach in a public setting. But whatever you have gleaned from God’s Word and incorporated into your daily life ought to be passed on to others whom God puts in your circle of influence. If you teach others what you know in your head but do not practice in your life, you become like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day—hypocrites. This does not mean that you must be perfect before you teach God’s Word, but it does call for the integrity of admitting your shortcomings and the honest effort to apply it to yourself.
One of the occupational hazards of preaching God’s Word each week is that I can easily fall into the trap of studying the Word so that I can tell everyone else how they should live, but not applying it to myself. I often think of what John Calvin said, “It would be better for the preacher to break his neck going into the pulpit than for him not to be the first to follow God” (cited by J. I. Packer, in a sermon in Anaheim, California, 3/5/86). Or, as Charles Spurgeon put it, “If any man’s life at home is unworthy, he should go several miles away before he stands up to preach, and then, when he stands up, he should say nothing” (The Soul Winner [Eerdmans], p. 174).
Thus we all should seek God’s blessing above all else. His blessings come to the ones who study and obey His Word. Such study and obedience are the foundation for imparting the Word to others, whether personally or in public settings. Finally,
After Ezra cites the incredible letter from King Artaxerxes, he breaks forth in praise to God (7:27-28): “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart … and has extended lovingkindness to me…. Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God upon me….” Ezra didn’t take credit for devoting himself to studying God’s Word or for his bold presentation to the king. He gave all the credit to God for His abundant mercy. Any good that appears in anyone’s heart, whether in a believer’s heart or in the heart of a pagan king, comes from God who deserves all the glory. When God blesses us, our response should be to bless God for His great mercy in using such imperfect vessels as we are.
It is remarkable that God is pleased to be known in the Bible as the God of Jacob (Ps. 46:7, 10). Jacob was a man with many shortcomings and faults. He connived his brother out of the birthright. He bargained with God at Bethel, promising to follow Him if He would take care of him and bring him back safely to the land (Gen. 28:20-21). After his many years of trying to out-maneuver Laban, he returned to the land full of fear about what Esau might do to him. The night before he was to meet Esau, the Lord met him and wrestled with him, dislocating his hip so that Jacob always walked with a limp after the encounter.
But before dawn, the angel of God said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” Jacob gave this great reply, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). The Lord did bless Jacob, the conniver, by changing his name to Israel, one who has wrestled with God and prevailed. The greatness of Jacob was not related to the strengths and abilities of Jacob. It was due to God’s hand of blessing resting on Jacob.
I hope that you will join Jacob and me in praying, “God, I won’t let You go until You bless me.” His blessing comes to those who study and obey His Word with a view to imparting what they have learned to others, all to the glory of God. May the hand of the Lord our God be upon you for His name’s sake!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
You might be surprised to learn that the first article that I had published, back in the late 1960’s, was titled, “Why I Do Not Go to Church.” I grew up in the church. I attended church every Sunday as a kid. I have in a drawer at home a pin that I received for perfect Sunday School attendance for seven years, and my record actually went longer than that. But during my college years I got frustrated with the church to the point of dropping out.
My frustrations did not stem from a lack of commitment to Jesus Christ or enticement into the world. To the contrary, I dropped out when my commitment and zeal for the Lord increased, not when it decreased. The college pastor of our church saw my zeal, latched onto me and put me in a group whose task was to brainstorm and come up with creative programs that would attract other college students to attend. I later sardonically referred to this as coming up with “Creative Programs for Carnal Christians.” If we succeeded in luring 50 otherwise disinterested students to our interesting program, the college pastor raved about how successful it was. But if our program wasn’t quite as enticing, the attendance would drop and we would rack our brains for something different.
Meanwhile, at Long Beach State College, our Campus Crusade group regularly saw 125 students come out on Friday nights to study the Bible without any creative programs to entice them to come. No doubt some of the students came for the purpose of meeting attractive specimens of the opposite sex. But most of the students were there primarily because we wanted to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. The gap was glaring: at church, a bunch of worldly kids had to be enticed to attend the creative program or they wouldn’t come. At college, the simple reality of knowing Christ and fellowshipping with others who wanted to know Christ drew the students. So I dropped out of the church with its superficiality and wrote my article for a friend who had started a Christian newspaper.
But even though I was frustrated with what I saw as the superficial games at the local church, I couldn’t shake the fact that Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18); and, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). God gave me a deep desire to help make the church all that He wanted it to be. That’s why I have been a pastor for these past 25 years.
I want this church to be a work that God truly blesses. I refuse to be a program manager of the latest Creative Programs that will attract Carnal Christians. I’m not here to entertain. I want to shepherd a flock that hungers and thirsts after reality with God. I want the living Savior to be at work in our midst in unmistakable ways. I want to remove every hindrance that would block God’s hand of blessing and I want to add every quality that would bring His blessing on His church. As Ezra testified to King Artaxerxes (8:22), “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him….” I want us to be a people that seek God.
Last week we looked at the life that God blesses. This week we are looking at the work that God blesses. This chapter gives the account of the journey of about 5,000 exiles (including women and children) from Babylon to Jerusalem. The phrase, “the hand of our God,” which we saw in 7:6, 9, & 28, occurs three more times: 8:18, 22, & 31. We learn three ingredients in the work that God blesses:
God blesses the work that seeks to honor Him by humble faith, scrupulous integrity, and Christ-centered worship.
Honoring God is the major thrust of the chapter. Ezra refused to accept an armed escort from the king because he had told the king how God would protect His people (8:22). So these people put their faith on the line by venturing out into a robber-infested desert with no human protection. Also, Ezra wanted to honor God by a strict accounting of the silver, gold, and other resources that they were transporting to Jerusalem. And, the reason that these people were making this difficult and dangerous journey was to honor God by worshiping at His house.
Ezra’s humble faith in the Lord shines through in two ways: in the roster of people who were willing to commit themselves to this difficult enterprise; and, in making the journey without armed protection. We learn:
It is one thing to go and ask the king’s permission to lead a delegation of exiles back to Jerusalem. But it is another thing actually to get volunteers to commit to the difficult task of giving up their comfortable situations in Babylon and to make the move back to an uncertain future in Israel.
The list of names (8:1-14) begins with priestly families (8:2), then those from the royal line of David (8:2b-3a), followed by 12 “lay” families (8:3b-14), which may be representative of all Israel. The number of men listed is 1,496, plus the 18 heads of families, totaling 1,514. Adding in the 258 Levites and temple servants assembled later (8:15-20) brings the total to 1,772. The women and children would bring the group to around 5,000, compared to almost 50,000 on the first return.
One significant fact about the list is that everyone, except for Joab (8:9) is connected to the pioneers who had first returned 80 years before (Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 65). This implies that “the original challenge to return, in the days of Cyrus, had had a very mixed response, dividing individual clans down the middle” (ibid.). The phrase “the last ones” (8:13) may indicate that these descendants represented the final members of that clan residing in Babylon. But that fact that clans were split up points both to the comfortable lifestyle in Babylon that contributed to the spiritual indifference of returning; and to the faith and commitment of those who did return.
It was no small task to organize a pilgrimage of 5,000 people, including children, across 900 miles of hostile desert. The group began on the first of the first month (7:9), but they paused for three days at a canal that runs to Ahava (8:15). As Ezra took stock of things, he discovered that there were no Levites present. There were three groups of priests, all descended from Levi: (1) the high priest; (2) ordinary priests; and, (3) the Levites, the lowest order, who cared for the service of the sanctuary (C. L. Feinberg, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], 4:854). The temple servants (8:20, “Nethinim”) assisted the Levites in their tasks.
It may be that none from these two groups had joined the returning exiles because of both the hardship of returning and also the bottom of the ladder status of their tasks at the temple. But, even though their jobs were not as glamorous as that of the priests, they were essential if the priests were to be freed up to do their work. So Ezra selected nine leaders, along with two men called teachers (8:16) and sent them to Iddo, the leading man at what was apparently a conclave of Levites. He briefed this delegation on what they should say (8:17). “And according to the good hand of our God upon us they brought” back “a man of insight” along with some other Levites, totaling 38 men (8:18-19). Also, 220 temple servants were persuaded to accompany the returning exiles. These 258 men and their families had very short notice to make the decision to return, to pack up and join the waiting group, which started out across the desert on the twelfth day of the first month (8:31).
We see Ezra’s humble trust in God in his thankful acknowledgement that these men joined the group because of “the good hand of our God upon us.” He recognized that God had to put it on the hearts of His people to be willing to serve, even in the tasks that were not so flashy. Three observations:
(1) God’s work requires workers as well as leaders. If you have leaders without adequate numbers of workers, the leaders will have too much to do, and thus will be hindered from giving proper leadership. If you have workers but inadequate numbers of leaders, the workers will not have the direction and understanding of the work that is needed. In other words, all the parts of the body of Christ are necessary for the proper functioning of the whole. If you are a believer in Christ, you’re a part of His body, the church, and you have a ministry where He wants you to serve. Workers are just as vital to the Lord’s work as leaders. Which part of your body would you like to do without? Every part of the body of Christ is crucial!
That point was easy. Now for a more controversial point:
(2) Leaders in the Lord’s work should be male. This list numbers the men, omitting the women and children. They are called “the heads of their fathers’ households” (8:1). Derek Kidner observes, “Ezra knew the structure of his society well enough to direct his appeal to the heads of families (7:28; 8:1), knowing that in most cases if they came they would bring their groups with them” (p. 64, italics his). He also notes that modern church strategy often tends to reverse this, going after the children first, to the neglect of husbands and fathers.
The New Testament is clear that the role of elder is limited to men (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), and that women are not to function as teachers over men (1 Tim. 2:11-15). In the home, husbands are the heads of their families (Eph. 5:22-6:4). This does not mean that elders lord it over the church or husbands bark orders to their families. Rather, we should be examples of the self-sacrificing servant love of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 5:1-5; Eph. 5:25). Being the leaders means that elders are accountable to the Lord for the direction of His church and husbands will answer to Him for the spiritual direction of our families. We should not capitulate to our culture by adopting egalitarian roles in the church or home.
(3) Leaders must be both godly in character and qualified by gift and training. The men whom Ezra sent are called “leading men” and “teachers” (8:16). One of the men they recruited is called “a man of insight” (8:16). Also, when Ezra entrusts these men with the gold and silver that they are to safely transport to Jerusalem, he reminds them, “You are holy to the Lord” (8:28). Ezra was not threatened, but rather was thankful (8:18) that the Lord raised up godly, qualified men to serve in leadership positions along with him.
Likewise, local churches need godly leaders, qualified for the office of elder both by gift and training. The qualifications for elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) are primarily character qualities, except for “able to teach,” which requires both gift and training. While no man perfectly matches the high standards for elders, we should not put men into that office who glaringly lack any of these qualities. God will bless the work that honors Him by trusting Him to raise up godly, qualified leaders and workers.
Our text does not reveal what must have been quite interesting, namely, the details of how and when Ezra told the returning exiles that there would not be any armed guards accompanying them on the return trip! It is amazing that there is no indication that people began bailing out when they heard the news. It is equally amazing that there was not a group of dissidents crying out, “This is insane! It’s suicide to venture out into that hostile, robber-infested desert, loaded with gold and silver, with no military protection!” But apparently, none protested.
Ezra reports, “I proclaimed a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions” (8:21). He then explains that this was necessary because he had told the king, “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him” (8:22). Because of this, Ezra was ashamed to ask for a military escort. “So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty” (8:23). “The hand of our God was over us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and the ambushes along the way” (8:31). Thus the group safely arrived in Jerusalem.
It’s interesting that later Nehemiah, who was also a man of faith, accepted the king’s protection for his trip (Neh. 2:9). There is no indication that he was sinning or lacking in faith for so doing. This raises a thorny question, which I can only touch on: When is it wrong to use human means in addition to trusting the Lord?
I think that the normal pattern is to trust God while thankfully using the means that He provides. You pray for protection on the highways, but you fasten your seat belt and drive carefully. You pray for healing, but you go to the doctor and take the prescribed medicine. You pray for a job, but you prepare a resume, dress appropriately, and go for job interviews. God normally expects us to use the means He provides, along with faith in Him.
But sometimes using human means will lead us away from trust in the Lord, or it would be a poor witness to unbelievers. Often, this is an individual matter before the Lord. For example, George Muller believed that it would not demonstrate faith in the Lord and thus not honor Him to advertise the financial needs of his orphanages. I’m sure that he was obeying God in the way he operated, making his needs known only to God in prayer. Yet others have revealed the needs of their ministries to God’s people, while trusting God and asking Him to provide. We just need to be sure that we’re seeking to honor God and that we are consciously trusting Him.
Our text shows that as God’s people seeking to do God’s work, we need to recognize that there are enemies and ambushes along the way (8:31), and thus we desperately need “God’s hand over us” to protect us. The enemy is seeking to destroy us and our little ones (8:21) by tearing apart families and by bringing down church leaders. I know of many men, formerly in the ministry, who have brought dishonor to God and His church through divorce or moral failure. Satan is especially targeting leaders. Knowing that there are enemies and ambushes along the way, we must humble ourselves and seek God’s protection through prayer, and in special times of need, through fasting. God will bless His work through us when we seek to honor Him by humble faith.
Some scholars have questioned the amount of gold and silver mentioned here, which amounts to many tons and represents millions of dollars in today’s currency. But if the king thought that Ezra’s God really existed, he would have wanted to give a gift fitting for a king. When you add in the gifts from the king’s counselors, princes, and the Jews who did not return (8:25), it added up to a sizeable amount. Ezra was concerned to give a report back to the king that the entire amount was delivered to Jerusalem without any of it being skimmed off through greed and corruption.
Thus he parceled the items out by weight and let them know that they were accountable to deliver that amount to God’s house in Jerusalem. When they got there, everything was numbered and weighed, recording the numbers (8:34). Perhaps some of the leaders grumbled, “Doesn’t he trust us? Why does he have to weigh everything on both ends and write it all down? After all, God is watching all that we do.”
But as Paul put it with regard to his careful handling of the gift for the poor in Jerusalem, “We have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8:21). If we do not follow proper accounting procedures, it exposes workers to temptation and to accusations. I knew of a church near us in California where the members made out their checks to “Jim Smith Ministries” and Pastor Jim (not his real name) was the only person who handled the funds. He made all deposits and he dispersed all checks. That is simply an open invitation for corruption and scandal!
We need to be scrupulous in matters of financial integrity, even on small matters. We have each staff member pay for personal long distance calls on church phones and for personal copies on the church copy machine. None of the pastoral staff have access to our giving records. Those who do are charged with maintaining confidentiality. Other accounting procedures insure that the work here is honorable, not only in the Lord’s sight, but also in the sight of men. When Jesus said, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10, the “very little thing” in the context is money. He went on to promise that if we are faithful in money matters, then the Lord would entrust true riches to us (16:11), which in the context are the souls of people.
The matter of integrity extends beyond financial integrity to the whole of a man’s character. Ezra was a man of moral integrity. That is one reason that God’s hand of blessing was upon him.
Thus God blesses the work that seeks to honor Him by humble faith and by scrupulous integrity. Finally,
The whole aim of this arduous undertaking of moving 5,000 people across 900 miles of desert was to worship God by offering sacrifices at His temple in Jerusalem (8:35). Our chapter repeats the phrase, “the house of [our] God” six times in reference to the temple (8:17, 25, 29, 30, 33, 36). Worshiping God at His house was so important to these exiles that they were willing to suffer hardship, danger, and great inconvenience to move back to Israel.
As soon as they got back to Jerusalem, rested, and accounted for the items for the temple, they offered sacrifices to the Lord. “The sin-offerings availed as an atonement for the sins of all Israel, and the burnt-offerings typified the surrender of the entire nation to the service of the Lord” (C. F. Keil, Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], Ezra, p. 113).
The entire Old Testament sacrificial system pointed forward to the Lord Jesus Christ, who offered Himself on the cross as the atonement for our sins. Thus our worship must always focus on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. As Paul put it, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). If we exalt Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross, God will honor His work in this church.
God’s people in Ezra’s day were far from perfect. In the next chapter, we will see how Ezra was appalled to learn that both the people and the priests had corrupted themselves by intermarrying with the peoples of the land. Nehemiah had to deal with further problems just a few years later (Nehemiah 13).
There will never be a perfect church on this earth before Christ returns. We all are prone to the influence of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Corruption forms on us as easily as rust on a nail left out in the rain.
But just because the church cannot be perfect does not mean that it cannot be good. We can be a holy people before the Lord. We can seek Him. We can experience His blessing on His work here if we will seek to honor Him by humble faith, scrupulous integrity, and Christ-centered worship. I encourage you to join me in laboring to make this church a work that God truly blesses!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Only twice in over 25 years of ministry have I seen a man weep genuine tears of repentance over his sin. One situation was a retired man in my church in California who worked part time as a janitor. He confessed to me how he had impulsively stolen a small item from a desk in the office he cleaned. Then he broke into tears over the sinfulness of his own heart.
I fear that in our decadent society, even we in the church have grown so used to sin that it doesn’t shock us anymore. C. H. Spurgeon (Autobiography of C. H. Spurgeon [Banner of Truth], 1:160) warned his fellow pastors of the danger of dealing with sin and sinners professionally, so that we lose our dread of evil. What at first shocked us becomes commonplace and routine. As Alexander Pope perceptively observed (Essay on Man, line 217, in Familiar Quotations, John Bartlett [Little, Brown, & Co.], 13th ed., p. 317):
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet, seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Because we are so desensitized toward sin, we fail to have the proper response toward it, whether it is our own sin, or sin in others. We minimize it, justify it, or ignore it and go on our way unaffected by it.
If we see someone reacting in a godly way toward sin, we think that he is a bit carried away or extreme. He is judgmental or intolerant. How dare he cast stones at others! Does he think that he is without sin? And so, by casting our stones at him, we justify our sins and go back to business as usual, wondering why God doesn’t bless our lives more than He does.
Our text relates Ezra’s reaction to the sin of the exiles who had returned to Israel after the Babylonian captivity. About four and a half months (7:9, cf. 10:9) after he led a remnant back to the land, it was reported to him that many people in Israel, including many priests, Levites, princes, and rulers, had sinned by taking pagan wives.
Ezra did not take the news in stride, chuckling, “Well, people will be people.” Rather, he tore his clothes, pulled some hair from his head and beard, and sat down appalled and speechless until the time of the evening offering. By then a number of godly people had gathered around him. Ezra arose, then fell to his knees, lifted his hands to the Lord, and confessed the great sin of his people, identifying himself with them, although he had not sinned in this regard. His prayer, which ranks with Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9 as one of the great prayers of confession in the Bible, shows us the godly reaction to sin:
The godly reaction to sin is to recognize it from Scripture, to mourn over it, and to confess it without excuse to the God of mercy.
How a person reacts to the news of sin tells a lot about that person. If we hear about adultery and get a subtle thrill reading the juicy details, it reveals that we do not hate that sin and are vulnerable to it ourselves. While I confess that I have never reacted as strongly against sin as Ezra did (I can’t afford to pull out my hair!), and while part of his reaction may be culturally explained, we still can learn from him that we need to abhor sin so that we do not become desensitized to it. The first step is:
How do we know what is right and wrong? A popular song (supposedly Christian) a few years ago asked, “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” I hope that most Christians know that feelings are not a solid basis for determining right and wrong. Yet I’ve had young ladies, purporting to be Christians, tell me that they are going to marry a non-Christian man because they have prayed about it and feel a peace about it. Never mind that the Bible strongly forbids entering such a marriage! It’s how you feel about it! I’ve had Christian spouses tell me that they feel a peace about divorcing their mates for unbiblical reasons. The peace they feel is the relief of escaping from a difficult relationship, not the peace of God. But they often act on feelings, rather than on God’s Word.
Some say that we should follow our consciences, but the conscience is only reliable to the degree that it has been formed by Scripture. For example, I ask couples who want me to marry them to fill out a questionnaire. One question asks about the couple’s level of physical involvement, and the next question asks how they feel about their level of involvement, with the choices: Good, Concerned, Guilty, or Trapped. Sometimes I get couples who report that they have sex often and they feel good about it! That tells me that this couple doesn’t have a clue about what God’s Word says about sexual purity before marriage. Their sense of right and wrong has been formed more by the culture than by Scripture.
Ezra was appalled when he heard about these Jews marrying pagans because he knew that God’s Word condemns it. He laments (9:10), “For we have forsaken Your commandments,” and he goes on to cite God’s prohibition against intermarriage with the pagans of the land. His citations are not an exact quote, but rather a summary of passages such as Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4. The reporting of this sin to Ezra (9:1) reflects the biblical language, in that these are the people groups that inhabited the land before the conquest under Joshua. Only the Ammonites, Moabites, and Egyptians were still extant. But the point is, Ezra and the leaders who reported this sin to him knew that it was sin because God’s Word declared it to be sin.
When the princes reported that the holy seed had been intermingled with the peoples of the land (9:2), their concern was not racial corruption, but rather, moral corruption. In the original command, God explained the reason for the prohibition: “For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods” (Deut. 7:4; see Exod. 34:16). God knew the tendency of fallen hearts. Rather than influencing their mates to abandon their idols and follow the one true God, the Israelites would be prone to mingle pagan idolatry with their worship of God.
This is called syncretism, and it always has been a major problem for God’s people. We don’t blatantly deny Christianity. Rather, we add to our faith the beliefs and practices of the world, so that in a short time, we are virtually indistinguishable from the world in our thinking and in the way we live. Because of this propensity, God forbade intermarriage and He even prohibited the Jews from seeking the peace and prosperity of the pagans in their pagan ways (Deut. 23:6; contrast Jer. 29:7). There had to be a clear separation of God’s people from the pagans or God’s people would be drawn into the pagan practices.
Blending in with the world rather than being distinct from it has plagued the church down through the centuries. Monasticism was an attempt to escape worldly influence by withdrawing from the world. I was surprised a few years ago to read some leading evangelicals who were suggesting a revival of monasticism as a way to stem the current flood of worldliness in the church! The problem with monasticism is that Jesus wants His followers to be in the world as salt and light, but not to be of the world (Matt. 5:13-16; John 17:14-18). He calls us to go into the world with a distinct mission, to reach the world with the gospel. But to do that effectively, we must remain unstained from the world. The way we think and the way we live must be shaped by Scripture, not by the world.
James 4:4 bluntly says, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” First John 2:15 is no less strong: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Or, as Paul puts it with regard to seeking worldly riches: “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
Since we have so many college age people in our church, and since our text specifically warns about intermarriage with pagans, I want to underscore that application. I have seen many Christian young people fall in love with unbelievers and consequently either fall away from their faith or have their zeal for the Lord greatly diluted. If you know and love Jesus Christ, the most important thing to look for in a mate is a person who loves Christ and is devoted to following Him. A believer and an unbeliever have totally different values and goals. An unbeliever is living for pleasure and the things of this world. A believer lives to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. To join the two is a built-in formula for conflict and misery in the home. Your children also will suffer.
Be on your guard! Satan uses the tool of an unbelieving or worldly mate to ensnare many Christian young people. “Do not be bound together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14)!
Satan always sugarcoats sin to make it look appealing. We mistakenly think that sin will get us what we want, but it always leads to bondage and ruin. Ezra’s prayer reveals where the nation’s sins had led them (9:7): “… on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to plunder and to open shame .…” Four times he refers to the people as an escaped remnant (9:8, 13, 14, 15), showing how the formerly strong nation had been decimated. He repeatedly uses words like “slaves,” “bondage,” and “ruins” (9:8-9) to describe the condition of the people. He acknowledges that if they do not repent, God may destroy them so that no remnant survives or escapes (9:14).
God’s Word plainly warns that sin not only enslaves and eventually destroys the sinner; it also takes a toll on others. Marvin Breneman (The New American Commentary, Ezra Nehemiah, Esther [Broadman], p. 149) writes, “Christians who adopt a life-style that negates Jesus’ commands are sacrificing both the future of the church and that of the peoples it should be reaching with the gospel.” If we blend into the world, lost peoples will not hear the gospel through our witness and our support of missionaries. Our children will grow up thinking that Christianity has nothing to do with how we live, and they will reject the faith altogether.
Thus we must steep ourselves in God’s Word so that we instantly recognize sin in ourselves and can turn from it. And being in the Bible more than we are in TV and other worldly media will keep us aware of the devastating toll of sin.
When Ezra heard of this sin of God’s people, he tore his garment and robe, pulled some hair from his head and beard, and sat down appalled for hours. His reaction probably seems extreme to us, and in part it may be culturally determined. But, as Edwin Yamauchi observes, “Rare is the soul who is so shocked at disobedience that he is appalled (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 4:664). R. W. Dale said, “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God” (cited by R. C. Sproul, The Cross of Christ Study Guide, p. 35).
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In his sermon on that text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “I cannot help feeling that the final explanation of the state of the Church today is a defective sense of sin and a defective doctrine of sin” (The Sermon on the Mount [Eerdmans], p. 55). He goes on to say that the reason so many professing Christians lack joy is that they have never experienced a real, deep conviction of sin, which is the essence of the gospel. He says (ibid., pp. 55-56),
They have failed to see that they must be convicted of sin before they can ever experience joy. They do not like the doctrine of sin. They dislike it intensely and they object to its being preached. They want joy apart from the conviction of sin. But that is impossible; it can never be obtained. … Conviction is an essential preliminary to true conversion.
C. H. Spurgeon saw the same thing in his day. (In the following quote, he mentions “revivalism,” which refers to those who used the new methods of Charles Finney, calling people to a “decision” for Christ by going forward. It was a man-centered approach to evangelism that denied the necessity of God’s sovereign power in the conversion of sinners. See Revival & Revivalism, by Iain Murray [Banner of Truth] for an excellent treatment of this.) Spurgeon wrote (source unknown),
A very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father’s house, and never making him say, “Father, I have sinned.” How can he be healed who is not sick, or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised…. The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they came to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it.
In his great work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards rightly argued, “True religion [he meant genuine Christianity], in great part, consists in holy affections” [= emotions] ([Banner of Truth], 1:236). When God changes our hearts through the new birth, He gives us new desires for holiness and a hatred toward sin. These emotional qualities (and many others) will increase over time. But a distinguishing mark of a true Christian is that he mourns over sin, both his own sins and the sins of others.
Ezra was so steeped in God’s Word and the history of God’s ways with His errant people that he knew that God’s severe discipline would fall again if the people did not repent. Even though Ezra himself had not committed this particular sin, he identified himself with the sin of the people and mourned over it.
What would you think of a doctor, who upon discovering that you had cancer, gave you a hug and said, “Take two aspirin and you’ll be just fine”? How about a fireman who responded to a report of a house on fire by saying, “It will burn itself out soon”? How about a policeman who arrived at the scene of a robbery, shook his head and said, “Boys will be boys”? In each case, the response is inappropriate to the situation.
A Christian’s response to sin, whether his own or the sin of other believers, should be to mourn. That attitude stems from trembling at the words of God (9:4). The godly reaction to sin is first to recognize it from Scripture, and then to mourn over it.
Ezra’s prayer is a model of confession. It has four elements:
Ezra affirms God’s righteousness in His past punishment of Israel by sending them into captivity: “O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous” (9:15). In 9:13 he acknowledges that God has given them less than their sins deserve. The implication of 9:14 is that if God were to give them what they deserved now, He would totally wipe them out. Ezra exonerates God, while accepting the blame for what the people have done.
There is not even a hint of complaint on Ezra’s part that God has not been fair. He does not point to any extenuating circumstances. Perhaps there was not an adequate supply of Jewish women for these exiles to marry, which led them to marry foreign wives. Perhaps the men rationalized by saying, “But our wives promised to worship at the temple with us.” But Ezra laid aside any and all excuses. Rather than complaining about God’s judgment, Ezra readily acknowledged that God would be justified to inflict much more punishment than He had.
Ezra’s identification with the people, in spite of his own innocence in this sin, shows that he knew the evil that lurked in his own heart. If he had been self-righteous, he would have prayed, “Lord, these people of Yours are obstinate and wicked. You are righteous to judge them. But I’m not like they are.” But instead, he included himself when he confessed the sins of the people.
Many years ago, a correspondent of the London Times was reporting on many of the same problems that we now have. He ended every article with the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”
G. K. Chesterton wrote a brief reply: “Dear Editor, What’s wrong with the world? I am. Faithfully yours, G. K. Chesterton.” Biblical confession doesn’t excuse oneself.
We are prone to minimize our sin by calling it a shortcoming, a fault, a tendency, or other benign terms. Ezra admits his shame because “our iniquities have risen over our heads” (9:6). In other words, “We’re drowning in a flood of our sins.” He refers to their “great guilt” because of their iniquities that led to the captivity (9:7). He admits to forsaking God’s commandments by joining with the uncleanness, abominations, and impurity of the peoples of the land (9:10-11). He refers again to their “evil deeds” and “great guilt” (9:13) for breaking God’s commandments and committing these abominations (9:14). He does not gloss over their sins as no big deal. He calls it what it is.
Ezra’s prayer makes no petition, but rather, he implicitly casts himself and the nation on God’s undeserved mercy. He acknowledges that the current return from exile and the building of the temple are a gracious “little reviving” from God (9:8-9), which those who have sinned have ungratefully disregarded.
Ezra made his prayer at the time of the evening offering (9:5). Perhaps the smell of the sacrifice encouraged his heart that God has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to Him, namely, through the shedding of the blood of a substitute. The Old Testament sacrifices pointed ahead to the shed blood of God’s perfect and final sacrifice, the Lord Jesus Christ. Through faith in Christ’s blood applied to our hearts, we can draw near to God for cleansing from all our sins.
J. C. Ryle said, “Christ is never fully valued, until sin is clearly seen” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], on Luke 20:9-19, p. 326). Thus our first reaction to sin must be to see it clearly from the Scriptures. Then, realizing that it put our Savior on the cross, we should mourn over it. Finally, we should confess it without excuse to the God of mercy, appropriating His cleansing for our consciences, that we might be renewed to serve Him in purity.
C. S. Lewis observed, “When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less” (cited by Nathan Hatch, Christianity Today [3/2/79], p. 14). As we grow in godliness, with Ezra we will react more strongly to our own sins and to the sins of God’s people. We will dwell more consistently at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, where God’s mercy flows to repentant sinners.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
We live in a day of glib repentance. Some years ago, an evangelical author and leader was exposed for carrying on an affair over an extended period of time. He repented, went through a year of counseling, and was publicly restored to the ministry.
I sincerely hope that his repentance was genuine. Only God knows the man’s heart. But the radio interview that I heard with him and his wife left me wondering if his repentance was genuine. The interviewer asked him how he had fallen into this sin. He used the story of the American pilot who had flown his small plane past all of the Soviet Union’s sophisticated radar and warning systems and landed in Red Square in Moscow.
This Christian leader seemed to be saying that he had all his defenses in place, but the enemy sneaked this sin into his life and there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. He was a victim of Satan’s clever tactics! His wife chimed in, making it sound as if her poor husband had caught a bad case of adultery, much like we catch the flu! It was interesting that when President Clinton was caught in his immorality, this Christian leader was one of three that he called on for spiritual counsel.
The Bible is clear that there is both genuine and false repentance. Twice Pharaoh told Moses, “I have sinned” (Exod. 9:27; 10:16), but he did not truly repent. Esau felt bad and wept over giving away his birthright, but he did not truly repent (Heb. 12:17). Judas felt remorse over betraying Jesus and even said that he had sinned (Matt. 27:4), but he did not repent.
If we want to be right before God, we must make sure that our repentance is genuine, not glib. Our text is not comprehensive, but it does give some marks of genuine repentance:
Genuine repentance involves heartfelt sorrow before God for our sins and prompt action to correct them.
The problem concerned the Jewish exiles who had returned to the land, but had taken pagan wives in disobedience of God’s commandment (Deut. 7:1-4; Ezra 9:1-2). Ezra (10:11) sums up what they must do to correct the situation: “Make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will.” Their confession before God, if it was genuine, would reflect heartfelt sorrow for what they had done. That sorrow would not be words only. It would also manifest itself in obedience to do His will.
Ezra’s deep mourning over the sins of the exiles led others to gather around him, see their own sins, and weep bitterly over them (10:1). A spokesman for the people, Shecaniah (10:2), confesses the sin and proposes to Ezra that the people make a covenant to correct the sin. Shecaniah himself is not in the list of offenders, but perhaps his father is the Jehiel, son of Elam, of 10:26. Six members of the clan of Elam had married foreign wives.
Ezra acted on Shecaniah’s proposal by calling the exiles to Jerusalem, where they all shivered in the December rain (10:9). They agreed that they had sinned and, except for four men who opposed the plan (10:15), agreed to the plan of action. A commission was appointed to examine each case. Presumably if the foreign wife had put away her idols and swore allegiance to the God of Israel, nothing further was required. But in the other cases, where the wife refused to give up her idols, the marriages were dissolved, presumably with arrangements for compensation to care for the wives and children involved. I will deal with the matter of divorce in light of biblical teaching in a moment. For now, let’s look at four marks of genuine repentance:
Ezra was prostrating himself and praying “before the house of God” (10:1). Shecaniah admits, “We have been unfaithful to our God” (10:2). It was with God that they made this covenant because they trembled at His commandment (10:3). They needed to confess their sins to the Lord and do His will (10:11).
While sin always hurts other people and we need to ask their forgiveness when we sin against them, sin is first and foremost against God Himself. That is why David, after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered, said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). He wrote (Ps. 51:4), “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight.” Certainly David had sinned against Bathsheba and even more so against her husband, Uriah.
But those sins were nothing in comparison with David’s offense against the holy God. When a believer sins, he gives occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme (2 Sam. 12:14). Unbelievers will mock God and justify their own sins when they hear of a believer’s sin. Thus our sin is primarily against God, which means that our repentance must be primarily toward Him also.
Paul says that godly sorrow “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). Both Ezra and those who gathered around him wept bitterly because they saw how unfaithful God’s people had been and they trembled at God’s word that warns of His righteous judgment on sin (9:4; 10:3, 14).
Our sorrow should be proportional to the magnitude of our sin. It would not be appropriate or necessary to weep over relatively minor sins, although we should keep a tender conscience toward all sins. We should confess such sins to the Lord and move on, praying for strength to avoid these sins in the future. But, if we have sinned in a major way, it is appropriate to be deeply grieved over what we have done. After denying that he knew Jesus, Peter went out into the night and wept bitterly (Luke 22:62).
Our grief over major sins should also stem from our understanding of the serious consequences that our sins bring both on ourselves and on others. Even though we are God’s people, our sins can arouse His “fierce anger” (10:14; 9:14) on us and on our children. I fear that too many Christians view God only as loving and forgiving, so that we have lost our fear of Him. It is worth pondering that when Moses asked to see God’s face, “the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exod. 34:6-7). We all like this picture so far!
But God doesn’t stop there. He continues (and we must continue also), “yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” The realization that my sins get visited on my children and grandchildren should cause me to feel them deeply and turn from them.
If there is any blaming, it is not genuine repentance. If there are any excuses, it is not genuine repentance. Genuine repentance says, “I have sinned,” or “we have been unfaithful” (10:2). Genuine repentance exonerates God as David did (Ps. 51:4b), “So that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge.”
Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., who was caught on videotape using cocaine in a prostitute’s room, “admitted that his cocaine problem came about because he cared too deeply, for too long, about too many other people’s needs” (cited by George Will, Newsweek [12/31/90], p. 72)! In the recent trial of the Yosemite serial killer, his attorney argued that he was not responsible for his atrocious crimes because of his difficult childhood. Thankfully, the jurors rejected that reasoning. But as you know, we live in a culture where everyone is a victim because of some psychological “disease” for which they are not responsible. But genuine repentance always accepts full responsibility for what we have done. But there is a fourth mark:
After confessing the unfaithfulness of the people in marrying foreign women, Shecaniah interjects, “Yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this” (10:2). The reason that there is hope is because our God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exod. 34:6-7). That is how God reveals Himself to us! David quotes those words of hope in Psalm 103 and then goes on to say, “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him, for He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:8-9, 13-14). Because God is always ready to forgive and restore the repentant sinner, the thought of repentance opens a door of hope to those who are suffering the consequences of their sins.
Thus the first mark of genuine repentance is heartfelt sorrow before God for our sins. But sorrow alone is not enough:
True repentance requires not only admitting our wrong to God and others, but also taking practical steps of obedience to correct our wrongs. With some sins, such as murdering or permanently injuring someone, we can never fix the wrong we committed. Some problems are so complex that they cannot be corrected instantly. But that should not be an excuse for not taking action at all. We should devise a plan that can lead us into full obedience to Christ. Repentance should take place as quickly as possible in light of the complexity of the problem.
Sometimes our sin results in problems for which are no easy solutions. This was one of those situations. To allow those in mixed marriages to continue in them would seemingly condone such behavior and would draw many Jews into religious syncretism right at the time that purity and separation were essential.
Only 111 Jewish men are listed as guilty of this sin, which was only 0.4 percent of the 28,774 exiles who had returned under Zerubbabel (Edwin Yamauchi, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 4:676). The list may be representative of classes of people, rather than a list of every man who had sinned, in which case it would be much larger. Even so, we may be inclined to think that Ezra was making a mountain out of a molehill.
But as Paul said with reference to tolerating sin in the Corinthian church, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). If the problem had not been confronted, it would have spread even farther. Since the Jewish exiles who had returned were so few in number, to allow this sin to continue could have effectively diluted their distinctiveness as God’s people. In His righteous anger, God could have destroyed the people until there was no remnant left (Ezra 9:14). Thus Ezra believed that it was necessary to break up these wrongful marriages, in spite of God’s declared hatred of divorce (Mal. 2:16). The fact that he fasted and prayed before acting on this argues that he did the right thing, although it was not easy.
To break up these marriages meant separating fathers from their wives and children, who would be sent back to their pagan roots, which was not good either. I think that Ezra believed that breaking up these marriages and restoring purity to the nations was a lesser evil than allowing the mixed marriages to continue and thereby threatening the spiritual purity of the nation in both the present and the future. Either way was difficult and painful.
Walter Kaiser, Jr. (Hard Sayings of the Old Testament [IVP], p. 142) argues that when our text says that these wives should be put away “according to the law” (10:3), it refers back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which permits divorce if the husband finds “some indecency” in his wife. He says that this could not refer to adultery, which was punishable by death. “Thus it had to be something else that brought shame on God’s people. What could bring greater shame than the breaking of the covenant relationship and the ultimate judgment of God on all the people?”
Should believers today who find themselves in mixed marriages divorce their mates? Clearly not! The New Testament commands that a believer should not enter such a relationship (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). But it is also clear that if a believer is already in such a relationship, he or she should live in a godly manner, seeking to be a testimony of Christ by his or her behavior (1 Cor. nbeliever chooses to leave, the believer is not bound by the marriage and, as I understand it, is free to remarry. The only other biblical ground that permits (not requires) divorce is the sexual immorality of one of the partners (Matt. 5:32; 19:8-9). In such cases, I always counsel repentance and reconciliation, because it glorifies God more than divorce does.
But there is another way that our text applies to us today: Just as separating from their pagan wives (and, in some cases, children) was a difficult and painful thing to do, so we must separate ourselves from our sins, no matter how difficult or painful. Jesus said,
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell (Matt. 18:8-9).
Jesus was using shocking language to get us to see how serious sin is and that we must take radical action to get it out of our lives, even when it is very difficult. Sometimes, as in the situation in Ezra’s day, there are no easy solutions.
Years ago, a young woman who had recently started attending my church in California told me that she wanted to be baptized, but she had a problem. She had been living with a man for 12 years and they had a seven-year-old daughter together. She knew that it was not right to give a confession of faith through baptism and continue living with a man outside of marriage. But he was her daughter’s father, and she did not know if it was right to leave him.
At first I assumed that they must fall under common-law marriage laws, but I discovered that California does not recognize common-law marriage. So I was not sure what to do. I could not marry a believer to an unbeliever or I would be disobeying 2 Corinthians 6:14. Yet in another sense, they were already a family unit, and I didn’t want to pull the little girl away from her daddy.
I sought counsel from several pastors and seminary professors. The general consensus was that they were in all respects (except legally) married, and thus she should get the marriage legalized before a justice of the peace. But then I found out that the husband was a libertarian who took great pride in the fact that he didn’t need a piece of paper from the government to tell him that he was married. He yelled and cussed at me on the phone for over an hour, accusing me of breaking up his family.
I told him that I was not breaking up his family, since I advised her to marry him. He was breaking up his own family by fighting the law of the state. If he really loved her, he would provide her the legal protection of marriage, so that she at least had property rights. It turned out that he loved his libertarian opinions more than he loved his live-in partner. When he adamantly refused to marry her, she took their daughter and left him. I then baptized her. It was certainly not an easy, neat solution. But I believe that she demonstrated true repentance by being obedient to God in spite of the personal difficulties.
Verse 15 mentions in passing that four men opposed the proposed covenant to divorce these pagan women. But I’m sure that there was far more angry dissension than is recorded here. Ezra would have been attacked as being an insensitive, unloving, self-righteous man who had no compassion for all these hurting people.
If Ezra is the author of Psalm 119 (as many scholars believe), many verses in that psalm reflect attacks on the author. He was the object of reproach and contempt (119:22, 39, 42). Princes were talking against him (119:23). The arrogant derided him and forged lies against him (119:51, 69, 86). Many persecuted him, dug pits for him, and waited to destroy him (119:84, 85, 95, 110). He had many persecutors and adversaries (119: 157). Even though he was obeying God’s Word, he was not a popular, well-loved guy!
Some may think that Ezra was wrong to force all the Jews into the covenant under the threat of confiscating their property and excluding them from the assembly (10:8). Wasn’t he just getting outward conformity without genuine heartfelt repentance?
In one sense, I’m sure that Ezra hoped that every man would take the necessary action to correct his sins out of a personal, uncoerced repentance toward God. But in another sense, as a leader of God’s covenant people, Ezra had to maintain certain minimum standards of biblical righteousness or the whole community would become tainted by sin and the testimony of God would be diluted to the point of uselessness. So he imposed the covenant on all.
The application for us is that God’s desire for His church is that every member would correct his sins because of heartfelt repentance before God. But even if some members strongly disagree, the leaders must enforce holy standards on the whole body, or the testimony of Christ will be destroyed.
Whenever church discipline gets to the whole church level, it is potentially divisive. Those who are inclined toward mercy or who do not understand God’s standards of holiness will complain that the leaders lack compassion, that they are not practicing grace, and that they are being judgmental and unloving.
But if a sinning member refuses to repent after the biblical steps are followed (Matt. 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1), the Bible is clear that he must be publicly removed from the fellowship and that other members are not to associate with him, except to exhort him to repentance (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Maintaining the purity of the church is more important than the potential strife and division that can erupt in the process of church discipline. Paul’s command is not fuzzy: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13).
Thus genuine repentance involves heartfelt sorrow before God for our sins and prompt action to correct them, even when it is difficult and potentially divisive.
There are many today who teach that all that a sinner has to do is to believe in Jesus, and that repentance has nothing to do with salvation. It should come later, they would say, but to call sinners to repentance is to confuse faith and works. But Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). In the Great Commission Jesus said “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). Paul summed up his gospel as “solemnly testifying … of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). We must begin the Christian life by repentance and faith.
But repentance is not just something that we must do at the beginning of salvation. It is something that should characterize believers all of their lives. As the Holy Spirit convicts us through God’s Word of our sins, we should go on repenting. In Eastern Europe, those who are nominal Christians in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have a word for those who are true Christians: “Repenters.” I think that we need to adopt that term in America. True Christians should be genuine, lifelong “Repenters.” May it be so of each of us!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.